It’s been a month since Irene van Dyk shocked New Zealand by announcing her retirement from international netball.
And it’s taken her this long to make a start on packing up her pile of little black Silver Fern uniforms. Locking them away, however, is a step too far – the box is still sitting open at the bottom of the stairs of her Wellington home.
“That would make it too final, too complete,” she says with a sad smile. “I’m not ready to close the book just yet. I’m taking baby steps!”
Though Irene, the most-capped international netballer of all time, doesn’t regret her decision to retire, she admits it has hit her harder than she had ever imagined.
A desire to be remembered as one of the greats, coupled with the fact the 42-year-old body wasn’t doing what it needed to do, spelled the end to her dreams of playing in one last Commonwealth Games and World Championship.
It was an ambition she clung to as recently as two months ago, when the Weekly last caught up with her and daughter Bianca (16). There’s still a calendar tacked to the wall of the dining room with the departure dates for Glasgow scrawled on it.
While she knows in her gut it was the right time to bow out after 20 years of international netball, the raw emotion she felt when announcing it to the nation has been replaced with feelings of loss and grief.
“When the news came out, [husband] Christie and I were having a drink outside, and he said, ‘You know when your mum passed away and you had that empty feeling in your stomach for ages? That’s what I feel like.’ And I thought, ‘Yes! That’s it! That’s exactly how I feel,’” she explains.
“I couldn’t put the feeling into words until he said it. It’s like a piece of me is missing, and I guess it’ll take time for that to dull. I have the life I have because of netball – it’s why I moved to New Zealand. It’s been everything to me.”
It only took three average performances for her ANZ Championship club, the Haier Pulse, including a rare benching at half-time during a game against the Western Force in Perth, for Irene to make her decision.
“No matter what we tried, it wasn’t working,” she shrugs.
“I was getting smacked down by the defenders and I didn’t know why. I knew I wasn’t good enough to be representing my country like that.
“You know what?” she says, leaning forward. “Someone asked me if I was pushed the other day, and I said, ‘Of course not.’ But I thought about it and I realised that, yes, I was pushed. I was pushed by shooters who are better than me – I had to realise that. I had to stand aside and let someone else have an opportunity.”
It was during the game in Perth that Christie (43) also realised that the time was nigh, and instead of texting his wife of 20 years his analysis of her performance after the match like he usually does, he simply sent, “Have a safe flight back, I love you.”
“That’s really when the deal was sealed,” she confides, looking at Christie, who admits he spent a troubled night worried about what he was going to say to her.
In the end, “I didn’t need to say anything,” tells Christie. “We know each other inside and out. I’ve been her biggest fan, but no-one can stay at the top forever. When you get older, the body and mind start to slow down…”
“And your mind still goes, but the body doesn’t react,” finishes Irene.
Just two days passed between telling Silver Ferns coach Waimarama Taumaunu over a cup of tea in her office of her decision and releasing the news to the public – two days in which an ocean of tears were cried by Irene, Christie and Bianca.
“I’ve never seen so much crying in my life,” Christie says, shaking his head.
“I called the team before it was announced,” continues Irene. “They were some of the hardest phone calls I’ve ever had to make. The call to Lauz [Laura Langman] was probably the worst. Oh, and Ria [Maria Tutaia], who said, ‘You can’t. I don’t know any different, you’ve been here from day one and you were supposed to be here when I’m done,’” she recalls, tears welling up.
“But they’ll be fine. There’s such a fine line – you want to leave a legacy, not be known as a player that just kept going on and on… but it’s frustrating! I can still play – I don’t have injuries or anything like that. But for the good of the team and for netball in New Zealand, I needed to go.”
It’s her deep love for her adopted country that has driven and inspired Irene since leaving South Africa in 2000 with Christie and Bianca in tow, ready to make a new life here and play for the Ferns.
“Every day, something happens that makes me realise how lucky we are to be living here,” she smiles. “Like the other day, Bianca had a dentist appointment in the Hutt Valley – and driving back to beautiful Wellington, with the harbour at my left, just made me so happy.”
But the reality of her decision is still hitting home. When the All Blacks played their first test against England a few days after Irene’s retirement was announced, she burst into tears as the team sang the national anthem, knowing she’d never be able to do that herself again.
“As a player, that’s right before you put your body on the line, the adrenaline is pumping and you feel so excited that you want to vomit, but you know you’re going out there to represent your country, and that’s the best feeling in the world,” she explains.
“It dawned on me that I’m never going to feel that again – and I cried my eyes out!”
Underneath the sadness, however, there’s still the unshakable optimism that Irene’s known for. As she looks back on her long career, that famous smile returns and she affirms that she has no regrets.
There have been sacrifices along the way – the biggest, having to give up her dream of a large family for netball. There won’t be any more babies, though. That option is off the table.
“But I wouldn’t change a thing,” says Irene. “And although I said, ‘Yes, that’s it’ to international competition, I still have some unfinished business,” she grins.
“I still want to play ANZ Championships next year – there are some people I want to set straight! I have six months to train before the start of the season and my form could be the best it’s ever been next year, who knows?”
But in terms of donning that little black dress once more, there is to be no changing Irene’s mind. Her focus is now firmly switched to the future.
For the first time in 20 years, the diary is empty and family is the immediate priority.
“Christie and Bianca have always put me first,” explains Irene. “Now it’s time for me to put them first. I’m really looking forward to spending some more time at home – maybe not cooking, Christie can still do that – but being here when B gets home from school.”
“It’s weird to have her here all the time,” Bianca chips in. “She’ll be changing the furniture around any day now…”
“I want to, but the TV’s too big!” Irene laughs. “And Christie won’t help me move it.”
“I like my house the way it is!” yells Christie from the kitchen.
“I’ll figure it out and move it later,” whispers Irene with a wink.
While conversations about furniture placement might seem mundane, for the star goal shoot they’re wonderful, because she finally has the time to be a normal mum and wife.
“I do feel like my life is starting again,” she says. “I’m still sad, but there’s also some excitement in there."
She has plenty of ideas – netball clinics, motivational speaking and finally fulfilling a long-held dream of becoming a massage therapist are all things she’d love to do, or she may choose to use her teaching degree.
The family home is also getting a spruce up, with different shades of paint streaking the walls as Irene decides on the perfect colour.
As she takes a well-earned breather, Irene is amazed by the outpouring of support and love she’s had since stepping aside.
“The flowers, the cards, the messages,” she smiles. “All of a sudden, I have realised that I’ve touched a lot of lives.”
And as she prepares to pack away the uniforms and close the lid on her life as a Silver Fern – with her place as one of the greats cemented in the history books – Irene she has a heartfelt message for us all.
“New Zealand, thank you for accepting me and my family, thank you for welcoming us and adopting us, and thank you for being there for me and the team,” she says, smiling, as a fresh batch of tears fall. “It’s been a hell of a ride.”