Real Life

Black Ferns star Tyla Nathan-Wong's love story: 'We were matched by our mums!'

The Olympic gold medallist and her sporty fiancé confess their families had a helping hand in their romantic engagement

By Fiona Fraser
It's a dream of rugby star Tyla Nathan-Wong's to run onto the field at the next Olympics in 2024 wearing a jersey that reads "King" on the back.
"I've been a Nathan-Wong throughout the 10 years I've played my sport," explains the beautiful Black Fern, glancing at her new fiancé Tupuria King. "It would be cool to represent his whānau next time."
In fact, it was sport that first brought Tokyo gold medallist Tyla and handsome waka ama champion Tupu together – with a little intervention from their enthusiastic mums!
Tupu chose a starry night to propose.
Tyla, 27, laughs as she recalls attending an awards ceremony in 2019 with her parents, who were seated at a table with another family, the Kings.
"We were just chatting away, having a nice time," she tells Woman's Day. "At some point, we talked about how their son Tupu couldn't be there as he was competing in Hawaii."
Unbeknownst to Tyla – and certainly to Tupu, 28, who took out the Te Tai Tokorau Māori Male Sports Award that year – the two proud mothers were busily making a match, with Tupu's mum Nyree piquing Tyla's interest by telling her all about his paddling career and "Train Like A King" coaching programme.
"When I got home, I looked him up on Instagram and gave him a follow," Tyla grins cheekily. Meanwhile, chatting to her son in Hawaii, Nyree casually mentioned meeting the Nathan-Wong family and how special Tyla seemed.
Tyla's had a great run with the Black Ferns.
"So I sent her a message," Tupu admits shyly. He wrote, "Here I was wondering why a superstar like you was following someone like me… until I had a phone call with my mum. So, kia ora!"
Three months of online chat saw Tupu and Tyla, who are both of Nga-puhi descent, discover a special bond. When Tyla invited him to join her at a music festival near her home in the Bay of Plenty, Auckland-based Tupu leapt at the chance – and he ended up staying the week.
"It just felt so natural, like we'd known each other for ages – there was never a moment of awkwardness," explains Tyla, who later headed to the Waka Ama Nationals to see her new crush compete.
Just weeks later, after Tyla became the first Black Fern to reach 1000 career points at the Sydney Sevens, COVID reared its ugly head.
"I was due to go up north for Tupu's mum's 60th near Kaitaia," she recalls. "The day after I arrived, we learned that the country was going into its first lockdown."
Suddenly, there was a major decision to make – move in together at Tupu's family whare or spend a long lockdown hundreds of kilometres apart. The brand-new couple opted to stay together.
"I was there for three months with him and his family," laughs Tyla. "It was a true sink-or-swim situation!" But the pair grew closer while training together with the wha-nau and perfecting their baking – flans, muffins and banana bread were their favourites.
However, it wasn't all Northland sunshine and sourdough. Tupu was forced off the water due to COVID safety precautions, which was a huge mental challenge for the sportsman.
Mum Deanne knew Tupu was the perfect match for her girl.
Meanwhile, Tyla received the sad news the 2020 Olympics were delayed. "I leaned on his mental strength to get me through," she confesses.
"It was hard to find my purpose again and I'd question what I was training for, but Tupu was always positive and a great motivator."
The pair enjoyed their time in the north so much that when restrictions lifted, they stayed another four months so Tyla could play rugby for Northland.
"I absolutely loved that period," she beams. "I actually think lockdown came at the best time for us. If it hadn't happened, we might've struggled to build a relationship with me being away for months at a time and Tupu travelling for waka ama.
"I know everyone had mixed experiences, but lockdown really gave me the time to learn all about Tupu – and get to know his quirky little habits!"
And Tupu clearly loved everything he found in Tyla too. "She's intelligent – a critical thinker," he offers. "That's the reason she's so successful in her sport and I love that she plays with such heart. Even though she's the smallest on the team and she's facing strong, heavy players, she finds the heart to play harder and make an impact."
Although he couldn't watch his partner in action in person at the delayed Olympics in Tokyo in 2021, it was a very special experience for Tupu to enjoy the final in the embrace of Tyla's Auckland family.
Seeing her score the gold medal-winning try against France was a moment Tupu says he'll never forget.
"I felt way more emotion watching her win gold than I ever have winning on the water myself," he says with pride.
It was even more significant because Tyla, who is of Chinese, European and Māori heritage, wasn't the only one to claim gold that day.
"Tyla's granddad, who she calls Gung Gung, was watching with us," says Tupu. "He's her biggest fan and used to play rugby himself back in the day. When Tyla received her gold medal, he pressed an item of family jewellery into my hands and told me how pleased he was that the two of us had met. He said, 'Here's a piece of gold for you too.'"
A proposal, says Tupu, was the next logical step. So, having made the necessary Zoom call to seek Tyla's father's blessing, Tupu planned a romantic country getaway to mark the pair's two-year anniversary.
Tyla and Tupu enjoyed their favourite T-bone steaks while soaking up stunning river views, before Tupu snuck into the Spotify playlist to put on their song, Millionaire by Chris Stapleton.
"Initially, I don't think Tyla had a clue what was happening, but somehow I managed to drop the knee under the stars and ask her to marry me," remembers Tupu.
Laughing, Tyla adds, "When he came back from changing the music, we were hugging and I realised he'd put on his pounamu. When I mentioned it, Tupu said, 'It's because I need a little kaha [strength],' and then the penny dropped!"
As he presented his beloved with a one-carat solitaire diamond ring, Tyla was absolutely elated, agreeing without a second's hesitation.
"He's such a passionate person – whether it's waka ama or his latest obsession with crypto currency!" she enthuses. "He works so hard, never complains and when he comes in the door each day, he always has a huge smile on his face. Plus, I love how close he is with his nieces and nephews, which is huge for me."
A glimpse into a future with children, perhaps? Tyla and Tupu, who live in Papamoa, say they haven't even started planning the wedding yet and are just happy in each other's company. And, of course, they're eternally grateful to their mothers, who saw a match in the first place.
Tyla tells, "I remember asking my teammates when our relationship was quite new, 'How do you know when you've met The One?' and they replied, 'When you do, you'll just know.' And they were so right. I just knew it was love with Tupu."

read more from