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Silver Fern Leana de Bruin on life after retirement

The popular netball star is having a ball.

By Kelly Bertrand
Snuggling her six-year-old son Caleb, former Silver Fern Leana de Bruin (39) sighs with contentment.
“I’m living the life!” she exclaims, tossing a ball to her rugby-mad little man in the backyard of their Hamilton home.
After retiring from international netball last month, even Leana’s a little surprised at how happy she is post-Ferns. After all, it’s a team she was a part of for a staggering 14 years, notching up 104 test caps in the black dress, and before that, 34 for her native South Africa.
It’s a game that’s given her everything – a career as a professional sportswoman, her closest friends and a new home in New Zealand. And apart from being Mum to the very energetic and vivacious Caleb, netball remains her greatest passion.
Leana’s decision to hang up her now well-worn bib was incredibly tough but, as the 1.90m defender concedes, it was time.
“My body couldn’t take it any more,” the no-nonsense netball stalwart says.
“I went into the Silver Fern trials with an open mind, but my ankle was giving me grief the whole season. The Ferns environment is tough and I was battling. I couldn’t give 100 per cent, so I said to [Silver Ferns coach] Janine [Southby] before she made the final decision, I think it’s time. And it was. I was always going to be playing in pain and I didn’t want to do that any more.”
Still, it was hard to let go of a 14-year tenure that’s seen her win a world championship, two Commonwealth Games and an ANZ Championship title.
“Part of me still wanted to be a part of it,” she admits. “I wanted to finish on a game, rather than just randomly like I had to. But, unfortunately, you know, life takes funny turns. Everything happens for a reason.”
And fate was the reason a 22-year-old Leana ended up in Aotearoa in the first place. After the 1999 World Championships, a World Seven invitational team was formed to play against the Silver Ferns in New Zealand, and Leana jumped at the chance to be a part of it.
“The manager of that team was from Invercargill. I was chatting with her and I mentioned how cool it would be to come over and play in New Zealand, and then she asked me!”
Three years later, Leana was a surprise selection for the Silver Ferns and lined up for her debut in 2003. Soon, she found herself up against her former team.
“It was tough,” she nods. “The hardest part was hearing the South African national anthem. I couldn’t sing that, I had to sing the New Zealand one. That got the heartstrings, for sure. But for some reason, it also felt right, as hard as it was. I was immensely proud to be wearing that black dress.”
Now Leana’s a true blue Kiwi – a fact reinforced by her New Zealand-born and All Black fanatic son Caleb, whom she’s thrilled to be spending more time with.
Leana played for the Silver Ferns for the past 14 years.
“He’s loving the fact I’m home a bit more now. Every afternoon, we’ll have a bit of a rugby game or a kicking contest in the backyard,” she says. “He knows everything there is to know about the All Blacks, he has the same birthday as Kieran Read, which he just thinks is the coolest thing ever. He’s playing rippa at the moment, but moves onto tackle rugby next year.
“He does understand that I’m not playing with the Ferns any more, but he does keep asking when we’re going away again, because we’ve been used to travelling a lot! It is a little weird to him that all of a sudden, Mum’s home every weekend.”
As far as a new plan goes, spending time with her son is at the top of Leana’s list, as well as being “a good tenant” and helping her landlords, Laurie and Jo, look after the farm and the animals. But Leana has found she’s been unable to let go of netball completely.
While she currently can’t confirm if she is playing in either the new South Auckland-based team for the inaugural New Zealand elite league or is seeking an Australian contract, Leana reckons she might have one more year of domestic netball in her.
And she’s also scored coaching gigs overseas, as well as ambassador work for Netball New Zealand. “I’m stuck in netball world!” she laughs. “I think I would have been totally depressed if I had to ask myself,
‘What next?’, but the transition from player to ambassador has been quite easy. Netball New Zealand has been great.”
Along with moving into a more mentor-based netball role, where she’s keen to share her experience and wisdom, she also has a very important event to plan – Caleb’s upcoming seventh birthday party.
“I had planned to still be playing netball at the end of October, when his birthday is, so now that I’m not, we get to organise the party together, which is really exciting. This will only be the second time in his life that I’m home for his birthday because we’ve always been playing overseas.”
She’s also looking forward to spending some more time with her new partner, who lives in South Auckland.
“Yup, there’s a bit of a dude hanging around. It’s quite nice,” she says with a grin.
“It’s kind of nice – well, it sounds horrible – but we’re not in each other’s face all the time! So the distance thing works. But it does help when you’re not playing; you have a bit more time to fit everything in and the headspace too.”
With her Silver Fern team mates.
Caleb is keen on a caravan trip around the North Island too, but Leana admits she isn’t so sure about that plan.
“Yeah, I don’t know how I feel about that,” she laughs. “I just don’t know if I’m brave enough to attempt it!”
Still, Leana says she can’t quite shake a few old habits, such as keeping up with the gym sessions.
“I know that sounds a bit weird, but I love training!” she tells.
“Though now I can just cruise on the bike, instead of going a million miles an hour, and then afterwards, I have time to catch up with friends, have a coffee and go for a walk.”
And while she’s blissfully happy with her new, less structured and more relaxed life, Leana knows netball will always be in her blood, and the woman her Silver Fern team-mates know as Vlooi will always be somewhere in the background, coaching, mentoring or simply as a fan.
“Everyone needs a nickname in the team and mine was Vlooi,” explains Leana. “It actually means flea in Afrikaans... but I’m not tiny and I can’t jump that high. When Casey [Kopua] found that out, she started calling me fleabag.”
Shaking her head, she continues, "My maiden name is du Plooy and someone at my high school gave me that nickname because it rhymed. Irene [van Dyk] is probably the reason why it’s stuck!”
It’s the friendships in the team that Leana will miss the most, especially with Irene, Maria Tutaia, Cathrine Latu, Grace Rasmussen and Anna Harrison.
“Those are probably the girls that I’d ring up and say, ‘Oi! Let’s go for a coffee!’ But you bond with everyone in the team, lots of us have been together for some time, and you’ll be friends until the day you die.”
But for now, mum-son bonding time takes priority.
“He’s just so handsome,” says Leana. “He’s growing up so fast. I’m looking forward to being here to see it!”

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