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The CAO mix-up that saw an Olympic-bound Irish star become an engineer for a top Indy racing team

Nicci Daly worked with the Juncos Racing team for two years.

IRISH HOCKEY STAR Nicci Daly has appreciated the chance to press pause on life during the Covid lockdown.

aig-20x20-wrap-up-event Ireland hockey star Nicci Daly. Source: Ramsey Cardy/SPORTSFILE

Like everyone else, Daly and her Green Army team-mates had important plans for 2020 that have been put on ice. And there have been a few milestone reminders that came up to show her how it was supposed to be.

Daly spoke to the media earlier this summer, at a time when Ireland should have been in Tokyo for their first-ever appearance at the Olympics. She was back before the press again this week on the one-year anniversary of Ireland’s epic two-legged qualifier win over Canada which secured their spot at the Games.

It was a remarkable occasion at Energia Park in Donnybrook, with Ireland narrowly edging out a nervy sudden-death shootout after the two legs ended in scoreless draws. A record-breaking crowd of 6,137 was there to soak it all up.

There are obvious frustrations that come with being forced to wait another year to realise your Olympic dream, but there were some positives that Daly could enjoy during lockdown.

“It was a welcome bit of a break actually even though we were gearing up for the Olympics,” she begins. “It was a nice time to just stop. I do remember just going for walks in my local area and thinking, this is just nice now to be able to switch off from everything.

“I probably have a bit of an overdrive in me where I try to do as much as I can in a short space of time. But it was a good time to reflect and sort of plan a bit. 

“You know, I’m getting a bit older, how do I manage the mental, physical, emotional rollercoaster that that all brings.”

Daly’s schedule is hectic at the moment. The Ireland team began a block of training in September which is “ramping up now,” according to the 32-year-old.

And their training certainly feels more purposeful now. The word at the moment, Daly understands, is that the Olympics will go ahead next year, “Covid or no Covid”. With that in mind, Ireland have further training plans for the start of 2021 which they hope will mirror the ones they worked through in January of this year. 

lisa-jacob Lisa Jacob Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Ireland will continue their Olympic preparations with a new team manager to link up with head coach Sean Dancer. Former Ireland international Lisa Jacob, who won 139 caps for her country, has come in to replace Arlene Boyles for the remainder of that 2021 Olympic campaign.

I think the news that Lisa is coming is great,” says a delighted Daly about the appointment. “She’s been around the squad for the last month or so, and Lisa’s been in the environment, she’s played for Ireland over 100 times. She knows what it’s like. She’s coached, she’s been around teams for a long time.

“Arlene brought so much to the team, not just as a manager but [as a] mentor, and all her experience of playing. Lisa will be able to bring something a little bit different, also that experience of playing.”

Away from the hockey pitch, Daly is busy working on a project which began in September of last year. Coming from a motorsport background, her youth was spent visiting Mondello Park and Phoenix Park to watch her father Vivion race.

She went to see a few Grand Prix races as well as the Indy 500. And when it came to choosing a career path, Daly eventually went down a road that led to her becoming a data engineer with a top racing team in the US. That 2016-2018 stint with Juncos Racing enabled her to work for a full season in the IndyLights programme.

More on that chapter of her life later. First, let’s consider the Formula Female initiative which she embarked on to encourage more young girls to participate in motorsport. It ties in neatly with the 20×20 movement which reached its conclusion recently.

After just one year, Daly is already seeing the dividends of her efforts in attracting girls to the race track.

It wasn’t just participation on track but participation off track, like engineers, mechanics and all those different career opportunities that are involved in motorsport,” Daly says when laying out the aims of the Formula Female campaign.

“We launched the Go-Girls karting initiative where we plan to introduce over a thousand young school girls between the ages of 13-16 to the world of motorsport and to the different career opportunities.

“Accompanied with that, we’re trying to support those girls that are already in the sport. That was the World Cup event that we entered in September, a T4 World Cup. It’s a new, sort of mono brand series that was brought in to make karting more accessible.

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“We entered an all-female team of Alyx Coby, Roisin Sweeney and both of them were fantastic. The fact that they were the only two girls in the race was pretty disappointing but they were both pretty competitive.”

nicci-daly-and-anna-toman Daly in action for Ireland at the 2018 World Cup. Source: Joe Toth/INPHO

As for that experience she picked up with Juncos Racing, you have to go back to Daly’s school days to fully appreciate the scale of her journey.

As a student, she didn’t excel in academics. She wasn’t exactly an unfamiliar face at detention time either. In a previous interview, she confessed to being a “terror for teachers.”

But it wasn’t that Daly wasn’t clever. She had the smarts to go far in life, she just wasn’t pouring them into the right subjects for her.

“I didn’t do subjects that really captured me,” she explains. “I was actually steered away from engineering in school subjects. I wouldn’t have done the likes of physics, applied maths, mechanical drawing or anything like that.”

Daly went on to study engineering in college but fate was needed to intervene and knock her in the right direction. A masters in engineering soon followed after a tough slog.

I kinda fell into engineering in college,” Daly recalls. “There was a mix-up with my CAO form – long story short I had to choose between bar management, applied science and engineering. I was told engineering was a bit broad, and that I might be able to find a route in that, and that’s how I ended up in engineering.

“It turned out I loved it. It was a lot more hands-on being in the labs. Seeing things, and doing things with my hands was definitely what I was more interested in.

“I’ve been around motorsport my whole life and when I realised it was a course in engineering and motorsport it really stuck with me.

“Even though it was very difficult – it was hard to transition from mechanical engineering to motorsport engineering, you’d think they’d be similar but they’re very different – the experience of working with the team brought it all together and cemented that that was what I enjoyed doing.”

Things could have turned out differently in Daly’s sporting life. A talented Gaelic footballer with the Ballyboden Wanderers club, she was once a player on the Dublin Ladies senior panel. It’s over a decade since she played at that level, however, and the Dubs have collected four All-Ireland crowns between 2010 and 2019.

Ultimately, she chose to stick with hockey exclusively, although she hopes to return and play for the club in the future.

But with a World Cup silver medal in the cabinet, and an Olympic Games to hopefully look forward to, Daly hasn’t exactly come away short-changed from the choice she made.

“I’m delighted to see how they are doing,” Daly says about the successful Dublin Ladies who are looking to lift the Brendan Martin Cup for a fourth consecutive time this year.

“The sport has been elevated in the last 10 years since I started playing. I recognise so many of the girls that are still there. I would have played with them. Yeah, you always think back and wonder what if, but I’m happy with the decision I made to go down the hockey route.

“I still have my club football team just up the road. I would hope to go and get back on the pitch after I finish hockey.”

AIG and 20×20 marked the conclusion of the AIG Show Skills competition, launching a highlights video celebrating some of the 3,000 spectacular entries received over the course of the competition.

20×20 ambassador and Irish hockey international Nicci Daly was on hand to help launch the video. To view the video, please visit the AIG Ireland Twitter page.

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