Daly’s dual passion driving her on for World Cup

A lifetime in the making, the multiple sporting strands of Nicci Daly’s life reach an incredible crescendo this month.

On Saturday, she lines out against USA as part of the ground-breaking Irish hockey team that will play in their first World Cup for 16 years. It follows eight years – and over 150 caps – of graft, including two devastating Olympic qualifying campaigns.

Nicci Daly on the attack last week against Chile. Pic: Adrian Boehm

Then, on August 18 and 19, along with Emma Dempsey, she will get behind the wheel of a racing car for the first time in earnest at Mondello Park at the Historical Racing Festival as part of the Formula Females Race against Cancer.

It is another phase in one of the more diverse range of sporting careers that has also embraced a spell with the Dublin ladies Gaelic footballers.

The first love was motorsport. Her father Vivion was a celebrated figure in Irish motorsport before he passed away from cancer. Her uncle Derek drove in Formula One and so it will be very much in the family tradition when she hits the track in her 1.8L 160Bhp Rover 25 saloon in a “future classics” class.

They will be the only two women in the field of 20, adding to the challenge with all funds raised from the venture going to the Irish Cancer Society, making it a tumultuous month for the Dubliner after a lifetime around the sport.

“It was definitely the number one in the house. Since the day I was born, every Sunday I was at the race track with my family. My dad, the brothers and sisters, it was always a family affair.

“As I got older, my brother and I wanted to get more involved. My dad was a one-man team; he was the truck driver, the mechanic, the engineer. He would take whatever help he could get and certainly put us through our paces to help out.

“We started off making sure the bodywork was clean, the car was clean, the tyres… he was very particular so he made sure we were particular too. As we got older, he taught us more things about the car, the setup and what that requires.

“Then we did the lap timings and would check the ride height, little things like that. That was how I spent my weekends from when I was four until I was 13.

“I think if my dad was still around, we probably would have got into karting as his career was about to wind down, he would have enjoyed helping us out.”

Nicci Daly with her customised helmet.

But his passing ruled out that avenue. It meant she redirected her sporting passions in other directions to incredible effect but the fire still burned to do something in motorsport.

“It’s such an expensive sport, if you don’t have the finances and at the age we were, we didn’t have the experience to take it on ourselves. The opportunity never came around.

“In the last few years, it weighed heavy on my mind that I wanted to get back involved and that’s where the Formula Female thing came in.”

Dempsey was another who grew up around the paddock with her father, an arch rival of the Daly clan in their younger years and was “mad to get me into a car” and eventually it got the green light.

“I just asked ‘can we do this for the Irish Cancer Society and in memory of my dad?’ and it’s just taken off since there.

“It’s been a bit overwhelming the support we had from the people from the early years of my dad’s career and the sponsors he had back then. The Women in Sport side of thing is huge – the Formula Female thing is obviously based around the fact we are an all-female team and will be racing 18 to 20 cars who are male.

“It has been great to develop something that hasn’t been big in Ireland or anywhere really around the world.”

She admits she has “no experience” behind the wheel of a race car but testing has proven a pleasant surprise, Daly being a tenth off the fastest lap times on the day and Dempsey three tenths back.

“We know we are quick and we have the ability to drive the car properly which is a good start. “The start is definitely overwhelming; I was completely concerned with the mirrors, making sure I wasn’t cutting across anyone.”

Daly celebrating with Anna O’Flanagan in 2014. Pic: Adrian Boehm

Before that comes along, the full focus is on hockey and the World Cup. Again, it was not an obvious journey to this point. She was initially a Gaelic footballer primarily until she went to High School in Rathgar where she soon developed her skills and make representative teams.

A bout of shin splints, though, saw her put hockey on hold for three years before being coaxed back by the current Irish coach Graham Shaw to play with Tallaght club Glenanne in 2008 following promotion to Leinster Division One.

It was pretty meteoric from there, getting a call into the Leinster Under-21s within six months and an invitation to the Irish senior team trials just a few months later in April 2009.

Big decisions arrived almost immediately, the tough nature of county or country showing itself when Dublin won their first All-Ireland ladies football title in 2011.

“I had only just got called into the Dublin senior team the same year I got into the Irish team. I had been with the Senior B team. There’s always that ‘ah, should I have stayed on?’ but then again would I have had my opportunity with the Irish team? You just don’t know. It was hard to take when they did win eventually but I chose hockey and it has been good ever since!”

There have been low points, most painfully missing out on the Rio Olympics by the width of a post in a shoot-out in Valencia.

For Daly, the method of coping was to take time out from hockey, moving to America where she linked up with the Juncos racing team to work as a data engineer, an avenue of work which seems her calling.

“After 2015, getting that close… it was just devastating. It was really hard to pick ourselves back up. It was our second major low after 2012.

“We had such a strong tournament and so it was hard to see what happens next. Taking that bit of a break to focus on my professional career allowed me to not make any big decisions. I am glad I didn’t take them. To come back, knowing there were 16 teams in the World Cup, it gave us that extra push.

“We did come together and debrief it when Graham came in as the head coach. There was a sense of ‘that’s in the past’ and it’s a new cycle.

“It was hard to start again, build again with a new coach. But what we learned with Darren Smith over those two years was the foundation for this and we have just continued to grow as a team and get better and better and make more tournaments and the Olympics!”

And that growth led to 2017’s super results in Johannesburg and a place at this week’s World Cup.
“It’s the biggest tournament we have played in, the first time since 2002. There’s hype around family and friends, it’s just something we have worked so hard for, been disappointed with not making the major tournaments. Getting there, feeling really good about it, I just can’t wait.”

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