As the daughter of Silver Fern legend Irene, Bianca van Dyk has grown up in the pages of New Zealand Woman’s Weekly.
To her horror, most stages of her adolescence have been captured through the Weekly’s lens, from slightly cringe-worthy Christmas-themed photoshoots, to family portraits with Irene and devoted dad Christie. The nation has seen her transform from a cheerful, cherub-cheeked little girl to the beautiful, confident and talented 18-year-old woman she is today.
“Yup, I’m 18!” she laughs, as everyone else in the room looks at each other in shock.
“I can’t believe it either,” says Irene, shaking her head. “When did this happen? Life is going so fast.”
Of course, no-one is prouder of Bianca than Irene and they truly are each other’s best friend. But the time has come to say goodbye for now – much to the retired netballer’s dismay.
Next week, Bianca sets off for four years abroad after winning a rowing scholarship to San Diego State University in California, where she’ll study kinesiology.
“I’ve been counting down the days for the last seven months,” exclaims Bianca, who is positively bouncing with excitement. “Mum, on the other hand... well, I don’t think it’s set in yet.”
Indeed, for a woman who is well-known for crying during TV ads and laughing at jokes meant for kids, Irene’s emotions about her only child leaving are strangely in check (or she’s quite possibly in denial).
However, if you happen to see a very tall lady in hysterics or in the foetal position at Wellington Airport next week, fear not.
“My whole world will come crashing down in that airport,” Irene says with a sad smile. “My baby’s leaving! But I am so, so happy for her. So many kids don’t get this kind of opportunity, so I just want her to go and enjoy America for what it is and take her rowing wherever she wants it to go.”
It’s a bittersweet time for Irene and Christie (45) as their little girl leaves them with an empty nest for the first time in 18 years – and it appears it’s her dad who is more of a mess than Mum.
“We were watching Home and Away the other day, and there were tears streaming down his face. He had to go out to the balcony and have a bit of a cry and then come back in,” she says, rolling her eyes.
“Christie and I will be married 23 years this year, and when you have a child, your whole life revolves around them,”adds Irene, who has just celebrated her 44th birthday.
“I said to him, ‘Dude, when Bianca goes, we’ll have to start actually entertaining each other.’ I guess we can take the dog for a walk a lot!”
But it is now Bianca’s time to shine and the talented athlete simply can’t wait to begin her new life in California.
“I feel like San Diego State is definitely the place for me,” she enthuses. “I know I’m going for rowing, but I wanted to go somewhere where I could have a good time too, so I think this will be perfect.”
While they are both making the most of every moment they have left together, it’s a mission to contain their non-stop laughter to take a photo. Bianca admits she’s looking forward to going to a place where no-one knows what netball is, let alone her mum.
“The most exciting thing for me is when I get over there and someone asks me what my name is, and I’ll say, ‘Bianca van Dyk’, and they’ll just be like, ‘Oh, yup. Cool,’” she says with a smile. “There’ll be no, ‘Oh, my God. No way! Is your mum Irene?’ which will be great. And because it’s rowing, this is completely my own thing. Netball was a big part of my life for ages, but I’m ready to put that to rest now.”
Bianca concedes growing up as almost a carbon copy of her mother came with challenges and made life as a child tough, especially when she was playing netball. She even dreamed of following in Irene’s footsteps and playing for the Silver Ferns.
“People can be really mean and I don’t think they realise their words actually hurt, particularly when you’re a young girl.”
Irene adds, “We were talking about this the other day with the stuff about [Warriors star] Manu Vatuvei’s kids being bullied because of the sleeping pill and energy drink thing, and even Max Key – it’s insane. In primary school, other kids would come up to Bianca and tell her that it was her mum’s fault that the Silver Ferns lost the game in the weekend.”
While she’s confident now, Bianca admits she used to struggle with her mum’s legacy and says she owes it to her parents for getting her through those turbulent teenage years.
“Mum, Dad and me, we’ve all gone through some pretty heavy stuff,” she nods. “And without each other, it would have been different. We all know what it’s like to have that scrutiny. But it’s chin up and keep going – that’s how we do it!”
And that’s advice Irene will try and take on board as she bids Bianca adieu.
“She’s a great girl with a good head on her shoulders. She’ll be fine,” she shrugs. “Just don’t come back with a million tattoos and black hair!”
“Oh, damn! There goes that idea,” retorts Bianca, laughing. “I don’t think I’ll be in a sorority or anything. I’ll be the cool kid with the other athletes drinking a protein shake. But I did ask Mum and Dad if they’d still love me if I come back fat – with the American food and everything!”
Luckily, Irene has plenty to keep her busy in Bianca’s absence. She’s still an ambassador for Netball New Zealand, and also holds coaching workshops and manages the junior programme for Netball Central, where she teaches five and six-year-olds how to play netball.
And she and Christie, along with family dog Hunter, have just moved into a new house in the seaside suburb of Seatoun, fulfilling a long-held dream of Christie’s to live by the water. From their balcony, you can spot Interislander ferries sailing out towards Picton, and being right across the road from the beach has given Christie an excuse to buy as many water-based gizmos as possible.
“It’s been amazing, though we couldn’t use the stove top for a few weeks because we couldn’t figure out how to work it. It’s one of those thermal induction ones,” Irene laughs. “It took us ages to work out you need the special pans.”
There are still reminders of the game she still very much loves in the new house – a ball sits in a crate in the backyard and, somewhat more bizarrely, a life-sized cut-out of Irene in her Silver Fern uniform, but wrapped in a towel, is stuffed into a corner of the garage.
“She did an ad for a spa pool ages ago and Dad refuses to throw it out,” giggles Bianca. But the packed suitcase sitting by the front door is a stark reminder for Irene and Christie that their tight trio is about to, temporarily, become a duo.
Still, a trip over to see their girl may be on the cards next year, depending on when Bianca’s rowing regattas take place. And there’s always video messaging and social media – once Irene learns how to use it.
“I’m getting there!” she protests, while Bianca shakes her head behind her.
“Everything is blurry!” her daughter retorts. “She zooms in on everything.”
“I just want people to see what I see,” says Irene, laughing.
“I really want Mum and Dad to come over and watch some races, and to see what I love,” Bianca continues. “I’m aiming for the 2024 Olympics, definitely. Who knows? The next few years will be make or break.”
“If she doesn’t fall in love and get married to a handsome American man,” Irene teases.
“That won’t stop me!” scoffs Bianca. “Though, that’ll definitely get Dad to fly over. He’ll be there the next day!”
Words: Kelly Bertrand
Watch: Irene van Dyk in Fight for Life
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