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Dublin: 15 °C Friday 14 August, 2020

A weight has been lifted but Nicci Daly's wait goes on and on and on

The 2020 Olympics were meant to begin this weekend – but instead of being in Tokyo, Ireland’s athletes have been left in limbo.

Flying the flag: Daly celebrates Ireland's World Cup quarter-final win.
Flying the flag: Daly celebrates Ireland's World Cup quarter-final win.
Image: Joe Toth/INPHO

THE EARLY MORNING sun glinted off a basement window, suggesting a warm July day was up ahead before a gust of wind provided a sobering reminder she was summering in Ireland rather than Tokyo. It was the first Friday of the month, the day Nicci Daly and the Irish women’s hockey team were due to fly to Japan but instead of heading to the airport, she was here, on a Dublin building site, looking skywards, “thinking, wow, this day could have been so different”.

She was right. If there hadn’t been a pandemic, a lockdown and an Olympic postponement, there wouldn’t be talk about ifs and maybes. There’d be nerves and excitement, lost sleep but endless dreaming. Tension would be a companion. She’d be scanning the other dining tables in the Olympic village, looking at the body language of rival teams, sensing whether the pressure was getting to them.

Then, in quieter moments, she’d reflect on her own journey, one of three children, the happy upbringing in Dublin, daughter of Carmel and Vivion Daly. Petrol was in the blood, weekends spent in Mondello Park watching her dad, a Formula Ford driver, race.

And when she wasn’t spectating, she was playing – Gaelic football with Ballyboden Wanderers and Dublin – hockey with Ireland.

Then one summer it came to a head. Dublin were chasing an All-Ireland, Ireland a spot in the Olympics. She thought back to Sydney 2000, Sonia O’Sullivan hunting down Gabriela Szabo in the home straight and that’s where it began – this long journey of hers to make it to the Olympic Games, one she hopes won’t end in sorrow.

A 2010 debut against Belgium was the first of 189 caps, long before the tears, the heartbreak, the redemption, the World Cup silver medal, the homecoming, the Olympic dream fulfilled and then the Gods pressing pause on it.

england-v-ireland-vitality-womens-hockey-world-cup-pool-b-lee-valley-hockey-and-tennis-centre Daly in action against England. Source: PA

She’s aware that athletes live two lives. The first is short, each year the equivalent of a decade. So for 32-year-old Nicci Daly, being told the 2020 Olympic Games isn’t going to start until 23 July 2021 is like being placed on hold. Perhaps you’ll still be a force at 33 or perhaps, by then, you’ll be slumped in decline.

“It’s no secret that I’m the oldest player in the squad,” Daly says, “no secret that I’m coming to the end.” She views the Olympics as a full-stop and earlier this spring, in the months that followed qualification, she was engaged in the little private wars the mind plays. What if I get injured? Will I make it back in time? Should I ease off or would that be interpreted as a loss of form and cost me my place?

“Part of me knows I’m not getting any younger. Am I going to be a much better player next year?” Daly asks. “Then, there’s another part (of me that serves as a reminder to) trust my experience, my ability to be consistent. I know I can do it.”

She was 30-years-old and an international centurion when she became an overnight sensation. All the Ireland players did in that crazy summer of 2018. The year began with them holding pub quizzes and other fundraisers to help pay their way to a World Cup and ended with them winning silver medals, the games screened live on RTÉ. A crowd of seven thousand people welcomed them home. President Higgins sent his good wishes, Shane Ross pledged greater funding. Hockey became chic.

ireland-players-celebrate-with-their-silver-medals The Ireland players celebrate winning World Cup silver in 2018. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“And yet we hadn’t achieved what we wanted,” Daly says.

That was Tokyo. It’s a curiosity of so many sports. World Cups and Olympic Games are both global events, contested by the same teams, one competition as difficult as the next. Yet in terms of status, there is no comparison, the former offering respect, the latter immortality.

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When they missed out on London, beaten 4-1 by Belgium in the decisive qualifier, there was perspective. “I hadn’t really made my mark on the squad and when we didn’t get to the 2012 Games, it was because Belgium were simply better (than us) on the day,” Daly says. 

So they vowed to improve. A second-place spot in the 2014 Champions Challenge won respect on the international hockey circuit even if the team remained Irish sport’s best kept secret. “We were on an upward trajectory,” Daly says. A 4-1 victory over the South Africans in the FIH World League – a de facto qualification tournament for Rio – backed up her assertion. Wins over Uruguay and USA followed, Ireland topping their pool, making it to the quarters. One more win was all they needed. China, dispirited by a three-game losing streak, stood in their way. What could go wrong? “Plenty,” Daly reminds us.

They lost in a shoot-out, a width of a post preventing them making it to the 2016 Olympics.

“What was most devastating,” Daly says, “is that it was so hard at that stage to see how we could get better. I remember thinking, ‘if we can’t do it when we are in such good form now, then when will it ever happen for us’?”

The answer was soon. They kept the team together, a few players retiring but the vast majority staying. “Because the team had experienced such lows, we felt we were all in it together. We couldn’t walk away. Personally, I just had to stay on. There was unfinished business and when new faces joined us, that energy and excitement of theirs helped us go further.”

So too did a face hidden behind a mask. Ayeisha McFerran is arguably Irish sport’s most talented athlete right now, a world class goalkeeper who made three crucial saves in the World Cup quarter-final win over India, three more in the semi-final victory over Spain, and another two in last November’s Olympic qualifier against Canada. “She’s fearless, a big personality, an unbelievably confident person, someone who just loves the pressure,” Daly says.

With McFerran, they’d discovered the difference between winning and losing, qualifying or once again falling short.

And the team, raucous in the immediate aftermath of Olympic play-off victory, fell silent by the time they returned to the dressing room. Hard tears were shed, Daly remembering that summer of 2010 when she was debating whether to dedicate her career to the Irish hockey team or the Dublin footballers. “You could become an Olympian,” Gene Muller, the then Ireland coach, told her. “Little did I know how difficult that would be.”

Source: International Hockey Federation (FIH)/YouTube

All these thoughts passed through her mind that November night. With her head in her hands and mist in her eyes, she cried and cried. “Put yourself back in 2015, you think you are never going to make it to the Olympics; we’d given it everything, but had fallen short. We had experienced such lows and now we had got there. That win was for all the players who were part of that journey. We’d been knocking on the door for years.”

Finally they’d wedged it open before a pandemic arrived to once again slam it shut.

And so a decade spent waiting has led to another 12-month interval.

Two thoughts: such a test of a person’s patience but such a prize to hold out for.

The torch still burns.  

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About the author:

Garry Doyle

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