Every time Silver Fern Irene van Dyk and daughter Bianca step out together, onlookers say the same thing: “Wow, you two could be sisters!”
Irene (41) loves it – “Yes! Winning!” she exclaims, but Bianca (16) screws up her nose.
“I mean, it’s good for her, but for me? Not so much,” the teen says with a laugh.
There’s no denying the similarities between the netballer and her beloved daughter. From their height – Bianca is only one centimetre shorter than 1.9m tall Irene – to the identical fits of giggles that are very hard to rein in, the pair share an incredible bond which has stemmed from the long periods of separation that Irene’s netball career has demanded of her.
But this year marks a new chapter for the spirited duo, as Irene spreads her wings and moves on from the Waikato Bay of Plenty Magic – the club she’s played most of her netball for since moving to New Zealand from South Africa in 1995 – while Bianca steps out of her mother’s mighty shadow to make a name for herself off the court.
This year, the pair will learn to cope with large amounts of time apart, as Irene travels with her new team, the Central Pulse, as well as potentially heading to Scotland with the Silver Ferns for the Commonwealth Games.
And while Bianca will be kept busy exploring her new-found passion for rowing, mother and daughter are thankful that their relationship is built to last the distance.
“She’s my buddy,” smiles Irene. “I can tell her anything, we talk about everything and we spend as much time together as we can.”
“Most of my friends hate spending time with their mums, but we’re besties,” adds Bianca. “She’s away a lot for netball, but when she’s home, it’s great. And she’s not embarrassing!”
In fact, this mother-daughter duo believe that absence does make the heart grow fonder.
“It’s kind of nice in some ways, because the time we get is amazing. It’s quality over quantity,” says Irene.
“We are kind of like the same person... we’re both as crazy as each other,” she ribs affectionately, grinning at Bianca.
With Bianca an only child, she’s always had Irene and husband Christie’s undivided attention, and as she’s grown up their relationship has become more of a friendship, because “she’s such a good and mature kid – there’s not much need for disciplining!” Irene smiles.
It’s this maturity that has led Bianca down a different path to the one she once imagined. The dream of following her mum into wearing the Silver Fern goal shoot bib has been replaced with her own rowing aspirations, as the pressure of living up to her famous last name became too much.
“I love knowing that I can do just as well in a sport that’s not netball,” muses Bianca, who this year made the under-18 North Island representative rowing team.
“No-one can question why I’m there. No-one can say, ‘Oh, you’re only in the team because your mum’s Irene van Dyk’, like people used to. Even if I did really well in netball, I’d always be Irene’s daughter, not Bianca. I can do as well in rowing as I like and there’s no pressure.”
“Whatever she does, she’ll be a success,” Irene says.
“I’m so proud of her. And it’s important that she’s doing whatever she wants to do. I’m happy she’s found her passion.”
Of course, Irene and Christie are her biggest supporters, even if that means a 5am alarm to drop Bianca at rowing.
But considering how much time Bianca has spent on the sidelines, watching her mum play netball, it’s a small price to pay, Irene insists.
Although she does wish sometimes that her daughter would be a little lazier, especially during the holidays.
“I just want to relax and she can’t sit still for more than half an hour!” Irene grumbles.
“I’m like, ‘Can’t you just hang with me?’ But she always wants to go out and do something. Normally it’s walking the dog or shopping, funnily enough.”
“We watch Home and Away together!” protests Bianca.
“Oh, yes, true, we do. It’s the only TV we watch as a family. Even Christie loves it,” admits Irene. “And we love going to the supermarket together.”
In a sustained effort to keep up with the kids, Irene tries her best to use social media, something that makes Bianca both exasperated and amused.
“I joined Instagram [an online social networking site where users share pictures] about six months ago and a few days after I got it, I get a notification: ‘Irene van Dyk has joined Instagram,’” Bianca laughs. “I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh, what’s next?’"
“Look, you have to keep up or you miss out!” Irene insists. “I don’t try to be hip and cool. I just try to stay on top of things. I don’t understand half of the stuff I’m on, but I do it.”
The pair will be relying on online forms of communication a lot in the coming months. Thankfully, Irene has now mastered Instagram and is now learning about Snapchat, a smartphone app which allows users to share pictures for only a few seconds. She’s comforted knowing that there are many ways that Bianca can contact her mother.
“There’s no time for her to get into trouble!” Irene says. “She makes being a parent easy. And I know that we’re open and honest enough that if the pawpaw hits the fan, she can come to me.”
“Wait, what?” her daughter asks incredulously, before roaring with laughter.
“That’s a new one... you are so weird, Mum!”
While this Mother’s Day will be spent apart while Irene is in Nelson with her teammates taking on the Mainland Tactix, their beloved mum and grandmother, Irene Viljoen, who passed away almost two years ago, won’t be far from each of their minds.
"Sometimes it’s still very raw,” Irene says, tears welling in her eyes. “Like the other day, I tried to make a sauce and there was a certain way she made it. I just wanted to pick up the phone and ask, ‘Mum, how does this work?’ It’s those moments you go, ‘Where are you, Mum?’”
But though she still mourns, Mother’s Day always reminds Irene of the lessons Irene Snr taught her and the values that she is determined to pass down to Bianca.
“The biggest thing she taught me was to trust,” she recalls. “Trust your daughter. I do, completely, with everything I’ve got. And it’s also trusting myself that Christie and I have raised her right and instilled in her strong moral values.”
And while Irene and Bianca are focused on their sporting careers, with Irene refusing to talk retirement while she guns for a place in the 2014 Commonwealth Games and 2015 World Championship teams, the duo are looking forward to some time later in the year before Bianca finishes school and moves to Waikato for rowing.
“I know this sounds corny, but Bianca completes me,” says Irene. “She’s my best mate and biggest critic!”
“That’s true,” Bianca grins. “She’s good at passing the ball into the opposition’s hands...”
“Oi, you!” laughs Irene.
“We are really very lucky. We need to count our blessings. We have a lot of them.”