Dana Johannsen

Dana Johannsen is a NZ Herald’s chief sports reporter

Netball: Turning 40 won't stop Irene

Irene van Dyk, left. Photo NZ Herald.
Irene van Dyk, left. Photo NZ Herald.

Although she's achieved everything there is to achieve in netball, Irene van Dyk has never got the sense that she was doing anything special or ground-breaking.

That's her feeling, too, as she approaches her 40th birthday this Thursday - "oh, it just feels like another birthday", she claims. But her coach at the Magic thinks otherwise.

Noeline Taurua believes van Dyk, only a couple of years her junior, is forging new territory for female athletes by playing professional netball in to her 40s.

"It's amazing, really, she is not only breaking new ground for netballers - it's a great thing for all women in sport."

With each passing season, van Dyk seems to rack up another impressive milestone. And with each new achievement the inevitable questions come - how long can she keep doing it? It's a question Taurua asks herself every season.

"I think she is playing the best netball I've seen her play in the ANZ Champs.

She's increasing her repertoire - her fast feet movement, her ball availability and even the distance on the shot - I think if she chooses, definitely she has another year in her," said Taurua. "And if she keeps building for next year, she can do another year after that."

Van Dyk remains a year-by-year proposition at international level as well. She had "absolutely" made herself available for the Silver Ferns this season, but was not in a position to predict what will happen post-2012.

Taurua remembers the day a young van Dyk announced her arrival on the international scene. She was watching helplessly from the other end of the court as a smiling assassin wearing a bandanna and bright red lipstick wrenched her world championship dream away from her.

It was the 1995 world championships in Birmingham, where the break-out South African star led her team to an upset win in pool-play over a Silver Ferns' line-up featuring Taurua at goal attack.

"I remember thinking, there ain't no way we're going to stop her."

Like the old saying goes, "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" - or better still, get them to join you.

Three years later van Dyk took up a contract with the Capital Shakers in the old domestic league, where she paired up in the shooting circle with her now-coach. Again, she made an immediate impression on Taurua and her Wellington teammates.

"The first time we went for a fitness session we had to do laps around a field and she said 'I'm the goal shooter, I only play in a little 10m area, I don't need to run'. We sort of looked at her and thought 'what the heck'?"

The Magic coach still finds it incredible that van Dyk, who is renowned for her meticulous preparation and unwavering standards when it comes to fitness and conditioning, is the same player who thought running was a waste of time.

But van Dyk credits her late introduction to the gym as key to her longevity in the sport.

"If I trained as hard as what I am at the moment when I was 18, I don't think I would have lasted this long."

It is fair to say the game has changed markedly during her two decades in the sport. Van Dyk has had the best vantage point to witness these changes. "It started as a non-contact game and has kind of evolved to allow more physical contesting, and that is great because it brings more skill in to the game - it's no longer just catch and pass, shoot."

Van Dyk has had to continually reinvent herself to keep pace. In some cases this has taken place in response to outside criticism, at other times her own self-reflection. But always it has come about as a result of her desire to be better.

Tomorrow she is coming up against the newest weapon in the defenders arsenal, the Harrison Hoist, when the Magic take on the Mystics in Auckland. It is a must-win game for the Magic, whose play-off hopes have been hanging by a thread since round five, but van Dyk is enthused about the prospect of such a big match.

"I love it - it's the ultimate highs and the ultimate lows, you just can't give it up."

- NZ Herald

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