Don’t be startled if you see Irene van Dyk on the Seatoun beachfront in Wellington this summer, coaxing children to toss a frisbee or shoot hoops with her.
It won’t be because Irene is missing her only child and “best friend”, Bianca, who’s now at university in the United States. Rather, it’s the wish of the former Silver Fern shooting star that more children switch off their devices and play outdoors. And our most celebrated netballer wants to join in.
The idea came to Irene earlier this summer, when she and husband Christie were walking along the beach, barely the length of a netball court away from their new home in Seatoun, at the entrance to Wellington Harbour.
“It was a perfect evening, but there were no kids to be seen. Another day, I saw two eight-year-old girls sitting next to each other on a park bench, tapping away on their phones,” Irene says.
“I just want to take my goalpost and some frisbees down to the park, and encourage kids to come out and play. I’d love to see more kids outside, climbing trees and riding bikes. And no one getting blamed if they fall.”
Children and animals top Irene’s list of aspirations for 2017. She aims to help “grow amazing kids”, by switching them off sugary soft drinks and coaching her very first netball team; and is keen to help to find loving homes for abandoned dogs.
In her typically genuine and unpretentious way, Irene fizzes when revealing she is becoming a coach this year. She’s passed her exams and will lead the Wellington High School junior girls team – taking the advice of another Silver Ferns’ icon, Sandra Edge, and choosing a school that hasn’t had a strong netball background.
“It’s a place where I can establish a netball culture and make a difference,” she says. “I want to grow with them. I want to create an environment where the girls feel safe and happy to play, where they can moan and groan about school, then go home happy. We don’t need to win.
“But I’d love it if these kids were asked later in life, ‘Who had the most influence on you?’ and one might say, ‘Irene.’ I want to be that person, who helps kids to become the most amazing people.”
She knows she will be enlightened too: “I’ll learn not to be too disappointed if they lose.”
In her day job, Irene will be raising “Future Ferns” – leading the junior programmes for the Netball Central zone, covering the lower half of the North Island, teaching five- to 10-year-olds the basics of the game she loves.
“It’s right up my alley,” the former school teacher says with a laugh. “I start with five- and six-year-olds, playing on a third of a court, with parents holding hula hoops for the goals. No one stands still; everyone touches the ball.
“Slowly but surely, we’re teaching kids to learn the rules without feeling threatened by the court being too big or the hoops too high. If you don’t get kids to embrace netball at that age, you’ll lose them to other sports that are flourishing.”
She doubts she will ever completely siphon netball from her blood. As Netball New Zealand’s official ambassador, she “still has a finger in every pie… it’s a part of me, and netball is my extended family.”
In her immediate family, there’s little she wishes to change.
“Right now, everything is good. I’m content,” the 44-year-old says.
Bianca is thriving at San Diego State University, where she’s halfway through the first year of a four-year rowing scholarship and studying kinesiology. Christie loves his job as director of cricket at Scots College in Wellington.
“We’re just happy doing what we do. I don’t strive to become the Prime Minister.” (Ironically spoken just hours before John Key stepped down from office.)
Irene and Christie have adjusted well to the emotional wrench of their daughter’s move across the globe. And Hunter, their four-year-old beagle, has profited through many more walks.
“Christie and I have always had a great relationship,” she says of her husband of 23 years. “We communicate really well – sitting down and gas-bagging about nothing in particular.”
But this year, Irene wants to spend some time alone – in the wilderness.
“I want to do one of those three-day tramps where you sleep under the stars and totally lose contact with the outside world. No phone; no internet. That’s my dream. On my own. Christie isn’t a big fan of walking,” she explains.
She is determined to stay active – but not overdo it. The most experienced player in international netball history – with 217 tests to her name – Irene no longer sweats it if she isn’t “left in the foetal position” after working out.
“I go for the odd run, lift some free weights; nothing too strenuous. It took me ages to realise it’s okay to simply enjoy my run.”
Health-conscious Irene is the face of the Switch to Water campaign, encouraging people at home, school and work to choose water over sugar-laden drinks.
“I don’t think some parents realise how bad it is – kids’ teeth take a hammering from that stuff.”
She also wants to continue supporting the animal charity HUHA (Helping You Help Animals), which provides shelter for homeless and abused animals in the capital. She’s eternally grateful to the sanctuary for finding new homes for her two Jack Russells, who struggled when the van Dyks moved from their Upper Hutt farm to the city.
On the environmental front, Irene’s message for 2017 is clear: “We need to start looking after the planet. Mother Earth isn’t happy.” And neither is she.
“I’m tired of driving behind people chucking stuff out their car windows. I want to leave this place in a better state for our kids to enjoy. We need to teach them to look after it now.”
Words: Nicola Russell and Suzanne McFadden
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