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Dublin: 5 °C Friday 18 January, 2019
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Christmas Day session, Olympic dreams and becoming female role models

Irish hockey star Nicci Daly wants to help inspire the next generation of female athletes.

THE ICING ON the cake, the fitting end to a scarcely-believable year as the memories and emotions of one magical summer in London came flooding back into the living rooms of the nation last night.

For those who were there, it was like reliving every glorious moment of it all over again; Deirdre Duke’s double against USA, the Green Army, the Lee Valley, the sheer pride in the jersey, the smile on their faces, Ireland’s Call, heroics from Ayeisha McFerran, Ali Meeke’s audacious flick, Graham Shaw’s fist pump, shootout drama, Chloe Watkins, Gillian Pinder, World Cup final, World Cup silver, history makers.

It’ll never get old.

DF_RTE_Sports_256Awards07 Graham Shaw and the Irish hockey team at last night's RTÉ's awards. Source: Donall Farmer

And now RTÉ Sports Team of the Year 2018, as voted for by the public. Beating the Irish rugby team, among others, to the award. Only the second women’s team behind Cork camogie to win it. A true reflection of the scale of the achievement. Of how 18 part-time amateur athletes brought the country on the most unexpected, and memorable, sporting journey. 

Even now, four months on, it still makes the hairs stand up. Just watch those scenes again, and try not to be overcome with pride, with joy and with pure emotion. What a year for Irish hockey, and Shaw — the mastermind of it all — named Manager of the Year, too. A truly incredible feat, a truly momentous Irish sporting moment. 

While last night offered the chance for the squad to once again reflect on the year that has been, the hard work has already started ahead of next year, with Tokyo 2020 coming into even sharper focus.

A recent trip to Spain was the first time Shaw’s squad reconvened since London and they’re now knee-deep in a demanding physical block, which essentially involves the players putting in hours of hard work in the gym to prepare for the Olympic qualifiers.

In the gym at 6am most mornings, half of the squad gather at UCD’s high-performance facility, while those based up north use Belfast’s Sport Insitute for intense watt bike or running sessions, all of this coming after many have spent the last few months playing club hockey in Europe.

Nicci Daly chose to take a break from the sport to continue her career with a racing team in America, and has recently returned to Ireland to begin the block of training with her team-mates.

“It’s been a hard two weeks but it’s been good, we’re in a really tough physical block at the minute which is perfect for me because I’ve been away from it a little bit focusing on other things in my life,” she says.

“It’s brilliant, we go into a physical block now for three more weeks and then we go to Chile for training matches, it’s the perfect start for the Olympic qualification next June. 

“There’s no rest, we’ve actually got a session planned for Christmas Day. I’ll be taking it easy on Christmas Eve, that’s for sure. It’s probably a running session or a rowing session, or bike. Or everything.”

gettyimages-1009746554-594x594 Ireland's Nicci Daly. Source: Christopher Lee

Fitting in gym sessions before college and work on weekdays is just one example of the hard work that goes on behind the scenes, and one of the key factors behind their World Cup silver medal, having built an enviable bond within the dressing room through the sacrifices they each make.

“This is usually the time when we would start a physical block because there is very little hockey going on in December for international or club,” Daly explains.

“So we like to go into the New Year having reached those high levels of fitness again, as January is when we start our proper programme in place for Olympic qualification.”

That qualifying process begins in June, when Hockey Ireland is due to host an eight-team FIH Series finals event from which two sides are assured of progression through to the final playoffs for the 2020 Games.

Ireland, on the back of their summer performance, will be the highest-ranked team in the tournament at eighth, and will have home advantage with the games set to be played at UCD, with the National Hockey Stadium’s resurface set to be brought up to standard in time.

It is a major boost to their hopes of backing up their World Cup exploits with qualification for a first-ever Olympics, as is last week’s announcement that a new €600,000 state-of-the-art pitch is being laid at the National Sports Campus in Blanchardstown.

“Yeah, it is,” Daly says, agreeing that it’s imperative the team ensure 2018 wasn’t a one-off.

“Every time you start a cycle, you always have the Olympics as your end-goal in sight. You always go into a cycle for four years so it’s always there.

“Anything in between, Europeans or World Cups, is always a stepping stone for getting there.

“And after the World Cup that we’ve just had and the summer we’ve just had, we’ve taken a huge step towards now, finally, trying to get to an Olympic Games and we’ve experienced the low of the low of not qualifying for Rio. And we’ve probably experienced the highest of the highs with London.

“We have both experiences now and the progression we’ve been on over the last couple of years, the summer has just highlighted exactly how far we’ve come, and it just makes us hungrier and really makes us determined to get over the line this time around.

“We’ve parked the World Cup a little bit and we’re focussed solely now on trying to qualify for Tokyo.”

Daly has, as of now, no intentions to return to the States to resume her career outside of hockey, instead opting to focus on what she can do to be the best possible player in 2019.

“It’s kind of been put on the back burner now until whether we know if we’ve qualified for the Olympics or not,” she says of going back to America.

“It’s just how you manage, I’m not the only one, it’s the whole team who have to manage their sporting and professional lives. It’s something I’ve been doing for the last few years.”

Normal service resumes for Ireland, then, but with success comes expectation and Daly is cognisant of the fact there are added eyes and ears on their results, performances and progress.

But all of it is positive attention, not least when the players are receiving the recognition in the form of awards and appearances on media platforms they weren’t even considered for 12 months ago.

gettyimages-1009745694-594x594 The hard work has started ahead of Tokyo 2020. Source: Getty Images

Daly, for example, was on hand at the Sports Campus earlier in the week to help launch Sport Ireland and the Olympic Federation of Ireland’s partnership ahead of Tokyo 2020, as Irish women’s hockey players have very much become the face of many campaigns, including 20×20 which aims to increase the visibility of women’s sport.

“Sometimes women and girls fall away from sport for other reasons: career, family, things like that,” the midfielder says. 

“But I think there are plenty of role models out there that show you can do it all and that you can balance it all, and not to shy away from it or to give up your sport just because other things are going on in your career.

“There is a way to do it all and there are plenty of people out there and I think it is important for those people to become role models for younger girls and women in sport.”

For Daly, the next step is to see people coming out to support women’s sports events. 

“What we would love to see is [an increase in] attendance at games, to show that people are supporting, and it’s not just for big finals or bandwagons towards success, but getting involved with the journey from the very start and supporting at whatever age it is,” she adds.

“And from whatever age you are: if you are a young person [we want you] to go out and start watching games and watching female athletes perform, and really start to understand that it doesn’t just happen in a final, or you don’t just get to a final, that there is a journey behind it all.

“It’s the encouragement as well, from people who are role models and who are already at the top level of sport. The Irish hockey team now, for instance, are great ambassadors to encourage younger generations to get involved in whatever sport it is, and to know that if they can see it, they can be it.

“I think the 20×20 campaign is a brilliant initiative and I’ll definitely be endorsing it as much as I can, through Formula Female and through Irish hockey. I think it’s really important that every female involved in sport gets behind it and really pushes it on.” 

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Ryan Bailey

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