Making her Black Ferns debut at just 18, Kiwi rugby star Tyla Nathan-Wong has faced countless high-pressure moments in her illustrious career, but none more nerve-racking than her wedding dress fitting.
Ordinarily a sweats-and-sneakers kind of girl, all eyes were on the bride-to-be as she tried a selection of gorgeous gowns at the Auckland boutique of Kiwi designer-to-the-stars Trish Peng.
"To think I've played in front of hordes of screaming fans all over the world, but it's finding the perfect wedding dress that has my tummy in knots," muses Tyla, who's set to wed her sporty fiancé, waka ama champion Tupuria King, 30, this summer.
"I was never that person who dreamed about my wedding day until I met Tupu, and everything fell into place. Saying yes to the dress has made this experience feel so real and I just can't wait to officially be Mrs King."
While Tyla is staying tight-lipped on her final dress design, it will be one of bridal queen Trish's fabulous frocks – and the Olympic gold medallist is thrilled to cross another item off her long wedding to-do list.
As an added stress, the couple is doing the bulk of their wedding planning from afar, with Tyla, who is of Ngāpuhi, Chinese and Pākehā descent, playing her debut season of rugby league for the St George Illawarra Dragons in Australia.
"I've always been a massive fan of rugby league and followed the NRL, so I'm absolutely loving the new challenge here – my team members, coaches and management are incredible, and I'm learning and growing every day," says the 29-year-old, who was granted a release from her Black Ferns Sevens contract in May to fulfil her childhood dream of playing league professionally.
"It does mean living apart from Tupu for the next few months, which is tough and a huge sacrifice on our relationship. It's been almost two months since we've been together, which is the longest stretch we've ever been apart."
It was Tyla who made the first move in their rock-steady relationship back in 2019, when she began following Tupu on Instagram. That fateful follow, which was engineered by the pair's enthusiastic mums at a sports awards ceremony, blossomed into three months of online chat, before Tyla plucked up the courage to invite her future hubby to join her at a music festival near her home in the Bay of Plenty.
"When we first met, it just felt so natural, like we'd known each other for ages," beams Tyla. But no sooner had they connected in real life when COVID hit, forcing the newly minted couple to form a little lockdown bubble of love at Tupu's family whare in Northland.
"We were so spoilt with time throughout the craziness of COVID," reflects Tyla. "In our fields, it would be quite normal for both of us to be coming and going from training camps or international competitions, but everything stopped, so Tupu and I were lucky enough to spend three months of uninterrupted time together. It really cemented and accelerated our relationship, and we got so used to each other's company. Now any time apart is extra hard."
But the couple makes it work and when the going gets tough, Tyla can always count on Tupu, who is of Ngāpuhi and Tainui descent, to find strength. "We're chatting every day, whether it's FaceTime or on WhatsApp. He is my rock and number-one supporter."
Having proudly graduated this year with a bachelor of sport and exercise after 10 years of distance study, Tyla says her hubby-to-be is a constant source of inspiration and motivation in her life.
"I started my rugby career while I was still in high school, but I never wanted my education to suffer," she tells. "While the juggle over the years has been tough, I'm so glad I stuck at it. Tupu is always an example of what's possible.
"Unlike my professional sporting career, Tupu isn't paid to pursue his waka ama dreams – he juggles 12-hour shifts at the ports in Tauranga, managing his own training and mentoring business, as well as studies and his coaching role, all so he can continue to do what he loves. He's so driven and that's one of the many things I really admire about him."
Despite their equally demanding schedules, the duo is committed to travelling to and from Tyla's temporary home in Wollongong, just south of Sydney, as much as they can before the wedding.
"We still have a few bits and pieces to finalise, but we're trying to stay relaxed and enjoy the process," says Tyla, who will wed her man in front of 120 of their dearest family and friends, overlooking Lake Karāpiro, where Tupu grew up paddling on the water.
So will the couple find time for a relaxing honeymoon after the big day? No chance, says Tyla, with 2024 shaping up to be a rather pivotal year.
"After this season of league, I'll be faced with some tough decisions about my future playing career. If I do pursue an opportunity to return to the sevens team, it will be an Olympic year too, which will be full-on."
And while Tyla always feels pride playing for Aotearoa, she says it's been a dream of hers to run on to the field wearing a jersey that reads "King" on the back.
"I've been a Nathan-Wong throughout the 12 years I've played, but it would be extra-special to represent mine and Tupu's new union, and his whānau, the next time I'm in a black jersey."
Speaking of family, Tyla says children are absolutely in their future – it's just a matter of when. "I want a baby so bad!" she grins. "Every time I see kids, my ovaries could explode! But we both have things we want to achieve before we start our family. When the time is right, we're excited to welcome some mini-Kings into our lives."
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