When Irene van Dyk’s husband asked her what she wanted for her 40th birthday, she replied with an absolute “nothing”. But it wasn’t the “nothing” that actually means jewellery or a nice new handbag. In the case of our oldest and most-capped Silver Fern, she wanted and needed nothing because – as she so happily proclaims – at 40 years old, her life has never been better.
“I’ve got everything I want,” Irene enthuses from her home in Wellington. “I’ve got a beautiful house, amazing friends and my beautiful family. “Nothing would make me happier than I am right now.”
Despite almost monthly rumours that she’s hanging up her well-worn goal shoot bib after more than 20 years of competitive netball, Irene has never been in better form – the concept of retirement isn’t one she’s all that familiar with.
“Retire?” says Irene, whose Magic team has made the ANZ Championship playoffs for the fifth straight year. “No way. Definitely not. I want to go to the next world champs and the Commonwealth Games. I’m nowhere near ready to give up.”
It’s this fighting spirit and competitiveness that has spurred Irene on through her long and illustrious career – and if anyone needs proof the old girl’s still got it, just put her on a netball court. “I am competitive. I always want to be the best. I love being on the court with girls that are young enough to be my daughter. I’m like, ‘What you got?’” she laughs.
Despite enduring constant – albeit affectionate – ribbing from her husband, Christie (41), and daughter, Bianca (14), Irene’s confidence in her abilities has never been higher. And when it’s finally time for the bib to come off, New Zealand can breathe a sigh of relief – there will be another van Dyk ready and waiting to take her place.
“I want to make the Silver Ferns too,” says Bianca, who shares her mum’s wide smile. Bianca is her mother in miniature form – well, not quite miniature. At 14 years old, she’s already 188cm (6ft, 2in), a mere 2cm shorter than Irene. It’s not hard to guess whose daughter she is, especially when she plays her own games in the role of – what else? – goal shoot.
“I hear people gasping and being like, ‘Ooh, that’s Irene’s daughter!’” says Bianca. “It’s a lot to live up to. When I was 10, if I missed a shot, people would say, ‘You shouldn’t miss, you’re Irene’s daughter!’ But I’m used to it now.”
Although Irene’s got 20 years experience on her daughter, it’s Bianca who takes up the role of coach in their close relationship. “I need to teach her how to pass properly,” Bianca says. “When Dad and I are watching her and she’s about to make a big pass, we panic a little bit.”
“She’s like, ‘Hey, Mum, the player with the same dress on as you? That’s the one you have to pass to,’” adds Irene. “And I’m like, ‘I’m trying!’”
Although Irene retiring would mean Christie would get to spend more time with his wife, he says he’s dreading the day she finally takes off the black uniform for good. “It’s part of her life. I was thinking about that the other day. I don’t know what I’ll do.”
“I couldn’t imagine Mum’s life without netball, she’d be home so much,” says Bianca. “Yeah, she’d be home and vacuuming every single day,” adds Christie, with a sideways look at Irene. “And when you’ve been home for too long, I get back from school and all the furniture’s changed,” laughs Bianca.
The van Dyk family is a close-knit one, for which Irene gives most of the credit to Christie – her teenage sweetheart and husband of 18 years. “He was my first boyfriend,” she smiles.
“Although, it definitely wasn’t love at first sight. We played sport against other teams at university in South Africa and we combined really well. We smashed everyone! Then it got serious. “But we are a close family, and it comes down to that. They criticise you, but they’re your biggest supporters.”
With their legal dramas of 2010 firmly behind them – Christie was fined $15,000 for accidentally illegally clearing gorse from their former property in Upper Hutt – the family is living the Kiwi dream, something Irene is incredibly thankful for.
“Originally, I was only supposed to be here for six months, but my mother came over for a holiday and she said, ‘I can’t see you going back to South Africa. Here it’s safe, it’s beautiful and you can play your sport to the highest level.’
“Once your mum tells you something feels right, you listen!” she grins. “I don’t think Kiwis value New Zealand like they should. I count my blessings every day I’m here.”
It’s with incredulity and much gratitude that Irene looks back on her life here. But even though she can’t stop smiling, she says her life hasn’t unfolded quite the way she thought it would. “I wanted a big family, a massive family, where you ask one side of the table for the sauce and it has to zigzag around to get to you. “I thought I’d have six kids, be happily married, a teacher and living in South Africa.”
But while family is her rock, netball is her drug – something that ended up overriding her dream of a big family. “Netball was quite important to me. Once you’re successful, you’re driven by success.”
It’s been 13 years since she moved from South Africa, but little about Irene has changed. Fully embracing her entry into her fabulous forties, she shows no signs of slowing down. She’s had no nips and tucks –“oh no, I’m au naturel!” she giggles – and she’s still in fighting form, on and off the court.
Despite her 190cm body taking huge knocks for more than 20 years, she’s never been in better shape – something Christie is very appreciative of. “Not bad for 40, eh!” he grins cheekily, as he watches Irene walk through the lounge.
Although the van Dyks are firmly looking forward, Irene says when it’s time to finally bow out of the game that’s given her so much, she’ll embrace the change. “When it happens, I’ll be gutted,” she says. “I’m a realist though and when it needs to happen, it’ll happen. I’ve been blessed in my career. I haven’t had any injuries,”– she quickly hurries to touch the wood of the coffee table – “but when one door closes, another opens.”
And while she’s a qualified teacher, Irene’s been harbouring another secret dream – she’d love to be a masseuse. “I think that would be a good way to make people feel better. “But I’ve done everything 110% with no regrets. I’m still riding the wave and it hasn’t crashed on me yet!”