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Dublin: 13 °C Wednesday 26 June, 2019
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Full throttle: Nicci Daly's drive for the extraordinary

After helping Ireland to the Hockey World Cup final, Tokyo 2020 is no mere fantasy for Nicci Daly.

Nicci Daly: first phase of Ireland's Olympic qualifiers begin this weekend (file photo).
Nicci Daly: first phase of Ireland's Olympic qualifiers begin this weekend (file photo).
Image: Sandra Mailer/INPHO

1 – PRESENT

SHE DASHES TO the designated spot, another player in the drill and just as eager for the football. Kick, run, catch, repeat. Quick hands. Quick feet.

“Come on! We got this,” she exhorts, before jumping off first in her group of five. The task is uncomplicated but only takes one misstep for the whole thing to break down.

Friday nights on the Firhouse Road, the blue and white of Ballyboden St Enda’s pack the training fields. Traffic passes, oblivious to the club’s congested juvenile network. At U14, Ballyboden can fill three teams for girls football. Féile [Peile na nÓg], the big competition at this level, is imminent and tonight the A side welcome two special guests.

Valerie Mulcahy, winner of ten All-Ireland senior medals, is here to coach them. To these young players, Mulcahy’s input is obvious. Less clear is the role that Nicci Daly will play. Perversely, the Gaelic footballer from County Cork looks more at home with the girls from South Dublin than the hockey international who went to school in neighbouring Rathgar.

Deborah Heavey, team manager, senses this reticence. Heavey, family friend of the Dalys, is the link between the hockey star and this squad. In the past, she called on Nicci to babysit her daughters, Lauren and Rachel, but tonight the girls are with her in the field: Rachel is here training while Lauren is on the pitch opposite for a match with the group a year below.

While the 13s are busy playing, the older girls still seem lost for words. Unsure what they should ask, their manager prompts a conversation: “What was it like playing at the World Cup?”

Daly seizes her opening: “It felt like Christmas.”

“Oh, I love Christmas!” gushes one girl before Daly can unspool her first thought.

Instinctively, they all begin to giggle. The insolent offender holds her hand in front of her face, crimson now that she has caught up with the rest of them, her innocence washed away by the blush of embarrassment.

“Were you tired?” asks another girl.

“Wrecked,” answers Daly.

“Did you cry?”

“I think so.”

Ballyboden U14s Valerie Nicci Daly, back right, with the Ballyboden U14s.

Each query is heartfelt. Daly tries her best to paint a vivid picture but the scenes seem too remote for the girls to grasp. Next, Daly passes round her silver medal, Ireland’s prize for finishing runner up at last year’s World Cup. Nobody is overawed. Daly knows this moment will probably mean more to them when these girls are closer to her own age. She turns 31 this year, a senior player in the national side.

The conversation wraps and Mulcahy takes charge. The Cork All-Star leads the players through a huddle. Together, they form a plan for the night’s training session.

Daly is relieved. Although she played Gaelic football before – with Wanderers, the second club in Ballyboden – and joined the Dublin senior panel in 2009, it is a decade since she wore a GAA jersey. This pitch is not her podium.

When Mulcahy calls them all to order, they need an extra body. From the road, Daly now seems another face among the crowd. Some players are taller, some noticeably smaller but none seem quite as happy to be running around a football field.

Suddenly she slips back in time.

2 – PAST

Paul Fitzpatrick coaches the first team at Dublin club, Loreto. Some players are familiar to him from his time coaching hockey at The High School in Rathgar. Ireland international Nicci Daly is still one of his most important players, though some things have changed.

“You were a nightmare, Daly,” he declares, whenever they talk about her schooldays.

Daly does not dare to disagree: “I was a terror for teachers. Most of the time, I ended up in detention for being late in the morning. Sometimes, I would come into school and just go to hockey.”

Figures of authority did not have much standing in Daly’s teenage world. She found it hard subjecting herself to the strictures of school; too many subjects failed to stimulate her and being told what to do merely encouraged an obstinate trait.

The thought of meeting her former self evokes a wince: “If I saw someone like me now, I’d be like: ‘Get out!’ I get very bored when I’m idle.”

Sport, at least, released her restless spirit. On the hockey field, Daly found escape: from schooltime ennui, from scheduled detention.

“We got a half day on a Wednesday,” Daly relates. “Wednesdays was detention but Wednesdays, after school, we had hockey matches.”

As ever, Daly was not one to give. Concerns about discipline were secondary when set against her value to the hockey team. Fitzpatrick, as coach, rescued her from more tedium.

“He would get me out of detention,” she recalls. “He was the only one I really listened to in school.”

Nicola Daly celebrates with her silver medal Daly celebrates after Ireland's historic World Cup final appearance. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Weekends were more demanding but less taxing. At Mondello Park, she received practical education. Her dad, Vivion, was a swashbuckling figure on the Irish motorsport scene. He made a name for himself during a golden period for racing in Ireland.

“He was a winner,” Daly remarks. “I remember the really proud feeling I would have when he won races, watching him lift the trophy or spray the champagne.”

From the late 1970s onwards, Vivion lived through halcyon days with his brother, Derek, who made it all the way to Formula One. At a time when winning in Ireland was a passport to world class competition, Vivion Daly set the benchmark.

“He was a master of Mondello Park,” writes RTE broadcaster John Kenny in The Dirty Dozen (2007), his book on Ireland’s motorsport legends. “The yardstick for a young driver coming through the ranks in the 1980s and 1990s was to beat Vivion Daly.”

In his time, Vivion raced against Ayrton Senna. Nicci, the second of his four children, emerged into this all-encompassing environment.

“I was born into motorsport,” she stresses. “I spent my weekends at Mondello. I didn’t want to be anywhere else. It would be interesting to see if my dad was still alive, where I would have gone. He was too busy racing to put me in a go kart, which is all I ever wanted to do. I’d beg him to race me up and down the lane, or have a diving competition into the pool while on holidays. I saw him as a bit of a hero and wanted to be as good as him at everything.”

Nicci was only 14 when her dad succumbed to cancer. His premature death, at 48, followed an excruciating battle with a cruel and aggressive form of the disease. The search for a cure took him as far as Mexico, where he tried alternative treatments, but to no avail.

“His illness was something he didn’t talk about with us or anybody really outside of my mam and his own mother,” Nicci remembers. “He was extremely private and wanted no sympathy from anyone.”

For Vivion Daly, a luminary of Irish motorsport, the light went out long before he had finished. Though his legend endured on the track, a young family faced life without their father.

Amid the trauma, Nicci Daly emerged numb: “At the time, I didn’t deal with his death at all. I didn’t talk to anyone about it. I didn’t want anyone to see me upset. I just got on with it. I went into school the day he died. I was trying not to make a big deal of it.”

Through teenage years, dreams missed a beat. Hindsight fills with perspective: “I think his death has made me more determined to fulfil my life. It has also made me realise that nothing in life will ever be as hard as losing a parent. Every challenge I face today, I believe I have the ability to overcome.”

Nicola Daly Daly: 174 Irish caps and counting. Source: David Aliaga/INPHO

You need not have known the man. Shards of an entrepreneurial spirit are reflected in the bright, searching eyes of his ambitious daughter. Her mind whirs, musing while seaming neat threads of dialogue. She does not lean on stock phrases for support; a pause, if it comes, is not a crutch for conversation.

“It’s hard to control my brain,” Daly admits. “I bombard people with ideas.”

Idle moments frustrate her: “I don’t think I’m a normal, mainstream person anyway. I don’t think I could see myself sitting behind a desk all day.”

This instinct, a source of conflict in school, served her well in the world outside. Away from the confines of the classroom, Daly discovered her true calling. Long hours and rigorous demands felt insignificant once her mind engaged in the logical ways of Mechanical Engineering, her undergraduate undertaking at IT Tallaght.

“I hated school but I loved college,” Daly recounts. “80% of college work was in labs. It was hands on. We were doing stuff.”

Carmel Daly can tell you why that transformation happened so quickly.

When her daughter spoke first, ‘I do myself’ were the words first spoken.

“If I want to know something, I’ll teach myself,” says Nicci Daly, some three decades later. “If somebody is sitting there teaching me, already my head is somewhere else. I’m a visual learner. I have to see it to do it.”

Vision is only one thing, imperceptible until matched by tactile endeavours. Mercifully, the death of her father has become more than a source of grief: “I used it to give me the courage to become who I really am. To become the hockey player, the engineer and the person I am.”

3 – FUTURE

On Saturday, Nicci Daly won her 174th Ireland cap as the FIH Series Finals got underway at Banbridge Hockey Club. During the last 10 years, hockey has taken her across the globe, from Argentina to Malaysia, to places where hockey is mainstream – professional by dint of popular appeal. Next year, this immense international career could culminate with ultimate glory at the Olympics in Japan.

First, Ireland must reach the final of their pool in the FIH Series. The top two teams progress to the Qualification Events for the Tokyo Games. Before they can contemplate those fixtures, Ireland have to take care of business in Banbridge.

In one sense, they are starting from scratch. Medals won at the 2018 World Cup possess no trading value in their current market: they cannot swap those silver medallions for Olympic spots. At the same time, they have been transformed by those magical performances last summer. A team that finishes second in the world cannot slip back into underdog kit.

“There are things I feel our team can achieve,” Daly reasons. “There are things I feel I can achieve. Deep down, I probably never believed that we could win a silver medal at the World Cup. There were numerous times I wondered: ‘Why am I doing this?’ I did think we could cause an upset at some level. That was the motivation to keep going over the years.”

Nicola Daly and Norsharina Shabuddin Daly and Ireland beat Malaysia in Saturday's opening game. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

The temptation to walk away hit hardest six years ago. After graduating from IT Tallaght, she headed for England to pursue the MSc in Motorsport Engineering at Cranfield University. This seemed like the dream: a chance to make her passion her living. Instead this new world, bravely undertaken, turned overcast.

“Doing the Masters pushed me into a dark place,” she reflects. “I doubted myself completely. People who had worked in the motorsport industry for decades did that Masters. The course runs within a condensed period of time. The learning curve is steep.”

Throughout that time, Daly flew back and forth to keep up hockey commitments. Thirty-five minutes north west of Luton Airport, Cranfield is not the hardest commute for a committed expat. But she faced a complicated set of demands. Combined, they nearly crippled her.

“Cranfield is in the middle of nowhere,” Daly informs. “We had on-site accommodation. Six of us shared an apartment. For the first three weeks, I stayed in my room. I kept asking myself the same question: ‘What am I doing here?’ I could be Googling one thing for five hours and not get anywhere.”

Out of those bleak moments she fostered the resolve to remain. Deep down, she sensed her best course of action would not be found along the path of least resistance: “I knew that quitting was the easy option. And, if I had given up, I would have regretted it.”

A simple vow, a declaration to herself, made alone one night allowed some light back into the room. Comparison had been thieving any and all joy: “I had to focus on being the best that I could be. Getting through was all that mattered to me.”

That ability to withstand hardship is an essential element for those who strive to play international sport. Here, at the elite end, resilience must endure.

“The training is the hardest part,” Daly feels. “It’s easier to get yourself ready for a week long tournament but it’s the everyday that’s the hardest part.”

Typically, between Monday and Friday, the squad have two morning gym workouts in UCD. Because the sessions begin at 5.45am, Daly sets her alarm for 5:15am. Such early starts can lead to sleepless nights.

One night recently, she was bolt upright long before the sacrificial hour: “I lay there from 2.30am trying to get back to sleep. I got up at 5.15am. I was home by 7.15am and went back to sleep until 9am.”

Daly keeps her own schedule, which alleviates the pre-dawn pain. Life, for every high level athlete, seems a complicating factor. Hockey is not forever and Daly spends the rest of her days working out the future. Once finished, the game will fade from her life.

“If I didn’t play hockey, I could see myself in motorsport,” she discloses. “I’ve done a race and some karting. I think I could reach a certain level with it because I’ve watched it so much and been around it so much.”

Already, most of her spare time is focused on Formula Female. The concept is wonderfully simple: to get more young women involved in motorsport. Daly knows the task is inherently difficult. She quotes from statistics that should deter all interest: “Of all the motorsport licences that are held in Ireland, only 6% of them are women.”

Instinctively, Daly searches beyond the raw data: “You can say that they’re not strong enough and they’re not quick enough. You’re taking the best female from a very small pool. You look at the Dutch hockey team and the Irish hockey team. Hockey is their national sport. They have hundreds of thousands of people to choose from. Obviously, the better players are making it to the top. Unless you grow the population of people involved, how can you expect someone to break through?”

What Daly has shown, through exploits in hockey, is an ability to confound convention. Ireland were not supposed to reach the World Cup Final last August in London. Now, a place at the Olympic Games does not seem far fetched, with a medal hardly fanciful.

Meanwhile Daly is grooving a place for herself in the wider world. For now, Formula Female is the great beyond. To that end, she has been busy building relationships with the talent that is already out there. Nicole Drought from Tipperary is Ireland’s fastest woman. Cork’s Kayleigh Cole is only 15 and already beating the boys. Twelve-year-old Holly Dunnion has been racing karts almost as long as she has been in school.

Her ambitious project is a demanding ask and prospects are still uncertain. The requisite funding is not easily accessed. Daly, like all entrepreneurs, must walk a tightrope linking lofty ideals with towering conviction. At no point can she afford to look down.

One day, Daly hopes the brand will grow into a viable business. To pursue her career of choice in Ireland is a dream worth chasing. Already her CV glows. After graduation from Cranfield, she spent 15 months as a Test Engineer with the Ford Motor Company in England. Then it was on to Juncos Racing in America for two seasons in the Indy Lights racing series, to work as a Data Engineer.

For a moment of the conversation she ponders alternate career moves: “Sitting at a computer screen all day, managing the production of microchips? I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to see the bigger picture. Where does that microchip go? What does it do?”

Even for the uninitiated, her passion is infectious: “The sound of a Formula One car is like nothing you’ve ever heard in your life. When the mechanics rev it, it’s like something is going to happen. It’s explosive. I get such an adrenalin rush. I’d get so excited at the start of every race, it was almost like I was taking part myself.”

Time spent with Juncos Racing at Indianapolis gave her a taste for the life she would love to lead. And, in the way of these things, her experience there merely mirrors what she seeks in every aspect of this life less ordinary: the pursuit of something truly extraordinary.

“Even if you have the fastest car on the track, anything can happen at the first turn,” Daly insists. “Anything can happen in a race.”

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