Real Life

Della-May Vining’s triumph after grief

The netball star felt her father’s presence during a harrowing ordeal

Walking into the bush, it’s pitch black, raining and an earthquake has just shaken the ground beneath netballer Della-May Vining.

She’s anxious and about to spend three nights completely alone with limited food rations, sleeping in nature with nothing but a makeshift tarpaulin roof above her.

Despite the nerves, she’s also excited and knows her family, including her late father Blair, would be proud of her efforts during the 21-day Outward Bound programme.

The Kiwi organisation celebrated its 60th anniversary last year, and is known for its personal and professional development courses, packed with active challenges and operating from the Marlborough Sounds.

“The only time you’re by yourself is during your ‘solo’,” tells Della-May, 21, recalling the February expedition. “You get given three apples, three carrots, some nuts and biscuits, and you’re on your own for three nights.

“It was about 10pm at night when I got to my spot and pouring with rain. I was tired and emotional, and trying to make a fly – like a tent with no walls, just a roof – so I could get some sleep.”

When she woke the next morning, it was still bucketing down, but with renewed enthusiasm, Della-May rebuilt her shelter and marvelled at the environment.

“I was expecting to have an epiphany, and figure out all these plans and what I’m going to do after my degree. That didn’t happen, but it actually taught me not to expect things and to just be present with what’s happening. It was so beautiful with kea coming up to me and amazing wildlife around.”

The University of Otago psychology and criminology student wanted to participate in the course as a high school student but financially wasn’t able to at the time.

So, it was a huge surprise when Della-May learnt she was the recipient of the Fidelity Life scholarship, after being nominated by her flatmate Abby Ngan, a fellow Outward Bound alumni.

“I am eternally grateful for the generosity as it never would have been possible for me otherwise,” says Della-May, explaining it was a life-changing experience.

“I have always been a positive person – all credit to my parents – but it’s given me more of a gratitude outlook, to be in the moment and to not hold too high expectations on myself.”

With Blair before her Year 13 ball – he died later that year.

The talented goal defence shares how from day one she found herself confronting and overcoming fears.

“We pretty much unpacked then went straight to rock climbing. I got halfway up and was clinging on to the side of the rocks, telling them to take me down. But they coached me to push past mental barriers and keep going. I couldn’t believe it when I made it to the top shaking and sweating.

“Every day you get up at 6am and go for a run. We were busy all the time sailing, doing waka ama, tramping or kayaking down white-water rapids.”

Recounting the unforgettable adventures, Della-May believes her late father Blair would have been thrilled for her.

With dad Blair and sister Lilly in 2019.

He passed away from bowel cancer in 2019, aged 39, but before his death Blair made headlines around the country as he relentlessly campaigned for better cancer care.

As a result of the petition, with 140,000 signatures he presented to Parliament, the Government announced its Cancer Action Plan, pledging $60 million in funding for more medicines and set up a national Cancer Control Agency.

“I have people reminding me all the time how proud my dad would be and being able to wear his name on the back of my dress is everything,” says Della-May, referencing the Southern Steel netball uniform she was presented with in 2020 after being named on the training partner pre-season squad.

The first thing she did afterwards was take the uniform to his grave to celebrate with her dad, who had always been her number-one supporter.

“Dad was a huge part of my netball career and not just the successes,” smiles Della-May. “I vividly remember sitting on the ground crying, saying, ‘I can’t do this’ after a trial where I didn’t make the team. He would remind me, ‘The hurt you feel now is what you’ll learn from.’ Then he’d pick me up and push me to continue.

“I remember his big shouty voice always cheering for me at games, not caring what other parents would think.”

Celebrating at her dad’s grave after getting her Southern Steel dress.

Della-May is currently playing club netball while studying in Dunedin. She recently trialled for a team that will represent New Zealand in Singapore later this year and dreams of playing for the Silver Ferns.

“Dad and I, and my family, have always shared the goal of me one day being a Silver Fern. Resilience was one of his biggest words and he always used to say, ‘If you try really hard and you want to get it, then you can.'”

Fidelity Life awards Outward Bound scholarships each year to New Zealanders. To apply or find out more, visit outwardbound.co.nz or call 0800 OUTWARD.

Related stories