Olympian Daly bows out following spectacular career with Green Army

Nicci Daly has announced her retirement from international hockey following 200 caps and playing a dynamic role in the Green Army’s golden period since making her debut in 2010.

It included that famous 2018 World Cup silver medal, five European Championships and this summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo while her goal against South Africa in 2015 in Valencia will be forever remembered as one of the greatest ever in an Irish outfit.

It is a career that the now 33-year-old scarcely envisaged during her school days. Introduced to the sport at The High School in Rathgar, her earliest years were spent more around the track at Mondello with her father Vivion and uncle Derek who were among Irish motorsport’s leading lights.

Indeed, she only had a fleeting engagement with club hockey at Diocesan while she also involved in ladies Gaelic football to a high level, playing with the Dublin senior panel.

But Graham Shaw suggested she had far more potential than she ever realised and nudged her in the direction of Glenanne – scoring on her Leinster Division One debut – and then on to Loreto where she was soon tearing it up with her raw pace and stick-speed.

That unique threat brought her to the attention of national coach Gene Muller, making her debut in 2010.

“I was awful; I really don’t think I touched the ball once – not with my stick anyway,” she remembers of the time and her first beginnings in the team.

“It was important though because at that time, I thought how am I ever going to be able to make this team? Now I can look back and know that it was the start of a really exciting journey and that it takes time to get where you want to go.

“The first big high for me with the team I feel was 2014. It was the Champions Challenge in Glasgow in 2014, we were the second lowest ranked team and we finished second – a bit like the World Cup”

“The year before, we had been relegated from the A division Europeans and didn’t even make the second round of the World Cup qualifier so this really was a turning point for the Green Army. It was all down to the coaching of Darren Smith when we started to play some really good hockey.”

Wins against higher ranked South Africa and Korea were formative moments and they carried that belief into the 2016 Olympic qualifiers where they would initially top their group.

In that run, Daly’s breathtaking goal against South Africa typified that new-found swagger.

“That goal was so important for me, not just because it was a good goal but because of the deeper meaning of it. I struggled with confidence as a player and had struggled to unlock my potential in games.

“Leading into the Rio Olympic qualifier, it was my uncle Derek who helped me. I knew I was better than I was showing.

“Derek gave me a book called ‘Performance Thinking: Mental Skills for the Competitive World’. It was about understanding and training your mind for better performances and it helped me so much. That goal felt like the moment it all clicked for me and gave me the confidence and reassurance I needed to believe I was good enough.”

From that pinnacle, though, came the crash as the width of a post put the Olympic dream abruptly on hold.

“Then came the rock bottom low when we didn’t qualify for Rio. It was devastating because we were making the most progress we had seen and we achieved things that had never been achieved before.. It felt like it was our time and to lose out the way we did was just heart-breaking.

“I remember feeling like I gave everything I had and another cycle seemed impossible. I struggled with it and took the opportunity to go to the States to explore my other passion, motorsport. It was definitely the break I needed.”

It helped Daly rejuvenate, recalibrate and play an ever-present role in the Green Army’s groundbreaking 2018 run to World Cup silver on those hazy summer days in London.

“London was a fairytale. Second lowest ranked team and in the World Cup final. It’s dreamland stuff but we went in knowing we could cause an upset (maybe just not quite as big as the one we did). It was great to put hockey on the map back home and inspire a whole generation at the same time, that’s been our legacy I feel, showing the youngsters that anything is possible and that if they can see it they can be it”

She did entertain the notion of stepping back at that stage, finishing on an incredible high, but there was still one ambition very much still to be fulfilled.

“The dream was always the Olympics, ever since the first training camp I went to, when Gene Muller told me hockey was in the Olympics. I didn’t even know that it was an Olympic sport at that stage [in 2009], but hearing my name and the Olympics in the same sentence was the only thing I remember from that conversation.

“Scoring a goal in the shootout against Canada during the Tokyo Olympic qualifier was another important moment for me, not just because of what it meant for the team. It gave me a feeling that I could still offer something, and gave me a boost when I really needed it the most.”

With qualification achieved, the Covid year was a rough one. While her inspiring skills videos were blowing up on social media, managing a niggling knee injury and the time stuck up the Dublin mountains was another big test to get right for a huge 2021.

Daly celebrates a goal against Belgium during her first international season in 2010. Pic: Adrian Boehm

“It’s been a battle for the last few years. This year was one of the hardest between the injuries and the level of competition within the squad.

“It’s at that point you think – I can either choose to make excuses here or I can continue to take on the challenge and do everything I can to put myself in contention.

“I have so much respect for every player in the squad who took on the same challenges and made that choice to give it absolutely everything and, whatever the outcome, at least we know we gave it everything. Being selected for Tokyo really was the dream come true.”

Her 200th cap came in the final game against Great Britain in the closing fixture of the group stages, the closing chapter to her international career.

In the time since then, it has given plenty of pause for thought about what it meant to be part of the Green Army.

“When I reflect on my career, there were definitely an even share of highs and lows both personally and collectively with the team.

“There are so many things I could talk about over the 12 years but I think one of the most important things I can take away is how much sport can teach you about yourself. It forces you to discover who you really are.

“You learn to understand how you behave when you’re challenged, how you deal with your emotions under pressure and how you choose to approach those challenges.

“You have to be honest with yourself; you have to be willing to have a growth mindset so that you’re always learning and always growing not just as a player but as a person.

“That’s one of the biggest takeaways I can take from my career. How it forced me to discover who I really am and why I was doing it.

“It wouldn’t have been the journey it was without the group and the team of players around me. The different coaches provided something different and I either learned something about myself or my hockey from each of them.

“I have made some of the best friends over the 12 years and I couldn’t have kept going without them pushing me and supporting me along the way.

“My family and very close friends have been the backbone of my support system. I could not have done it without them, especially my mother who shows me what resilience really is.

“I like to think I get my drive from my dad and my strength and resilience from my Mum. My uncle Derek was hugely influential, having had a career at the top level himself, I trusted him and looked up to him. He helped transform the mental side of my game and I am so grateful for his support. A special mention to my nana, an unrelenting energy and inspiration.

“A massive thanks to all our sponsors and individual sponsors who supported and continue to support me.

“It has been a special journey and I feel so lucky to have been part of such a great team for as long as I have. I won’t miss the sore body and aching joints but I will miss the team and the feeling of walking out to represent my country. 200 appearances and every single time I got butterflies when the national anthem played.

“It’s been special, it’s been emotional and it’s been a dream come true.

“Thank you 💚”