In 1998, Kyle Vander-Kuyp was at the peak of his athletic career. The Olympian already held the Australian 110m Hurdles record alongside eight consecutive national titles. The Commonwealth Games were almost upon him and beyond them the Sydney Olympics beckoned.
Vander-Kuyp had just moved to Canberra to begin a rigorous new training regime at the AIS and every ounce of his energy – physical, mental, emotional – was being poured into it. But one day that summer, the phone rang.
No amount of training could prepare him for the words he heard next.
"Kyle, we’re calling from Link-Up…We've got your biological mother here, and she's keen to meet you. Do you think you're ready?"
Vander-Kuyp is a proud Woromi and Yuin man with First Nations heritage along the New South Wales coast that dates back tens of thousands of years. Today, he dedicates his life to sharing the traditional cultures of these lands using the platform he has earned through his sporting success. But this wasn’t always possible for him.
When Kyle was just five weeks old, he was adopted and raised by non-Indigenous parents Pat and Ben Vander-Kuyp and grew up largely disconnected from his own culture. But that didn’t mean he sidestepped the kinds of racial abuse suffered by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
“I got a bit of name-calling at school, and that threw me a bit,” Vander-Kuyp recounts. “I thought, ‘Can’t I just be the same colour? I just want to fit in.’”
The young athlete’s parents were not Indigenous, but Vander-Kuyp remembers they always encouraged him to embrace his Aboriginality. At functions, his mum would introduce him to Indigenous role models such as Pastor Sir Douglas Nicholls, Evonne Goolagong Cawley and Lionel Rose.
But despite her best efforts, the constant bullying over Kyle’s heritage still left him feeling alienated. When Kyle was 11 years old, his mother phoned football legend Maurice Rioli and told him of her son’s struggles. Without hesitation Rioli went to the troubled boy’s school and sought him out.
“Look, Kyle,” Rioli told him, “It’s an advantage to be Aboriginal, not a disadvantage – but you’ve got to use it.”
The visit left an indelible impression on young Kyle.
“Those words just hit the mark and I just took off after that moment,” he says. “It was almost the permission to not feel ashamed.”
Over the following years, Vander-Kuyp would himself grow into an Indigenous role model. Whilst working as a mentor for Indigenous staff at Trinity Grammar School in Melbourne in 2014, he met the school’s chaplain, Tom Purcell. Purcell mentioned that he wanted to start a foundation devoted to educating all Australians about Indigenous cultures, named Grow Hope. Vander-Kuyp immediately offered his support, and joined the organisation’s Board.
Today, the foundation operates through four programs: Incursions, Immersions, Leadership and Life Skills. Central to these programs is the empowerment of First Nations youth to pass on their cultures to their fellow Australians.
“It’s not really worth [non-Indigenous people] teaching it, because it’s not really our story– we want it to be our story, but being taught through a white man’s eyes is not really that powerful, it’s not right,” Purcell says. “It should be Indigenous people teaching their own cultures in Melbourne schools.”
Vander-Kuyp’s journey to learn his own culture was filled with challenges, but one thing that stuck with him was the counsel he received in his youth from a Wurundjeri elder who told him: “Don’t worry about what you look like – being Aboriginal is something you’ll feel on the inside. You just trust it.”
Vander-Kuyp says the advice perplexed him for years, until he met his biological family and learned he had three brothers, a sister, and countless aunties and uncles.
“I’d found where my genetics came from. It put me at ease,” he says.
While visiting his family, his cousins took him out fishing. Sunshine poured onto him from the Woromi sky, each ray dancing off the turquoise water. Kookaburra laughter rang around the billabong as mullet and bream fluttered about under the surface. Vander-Kuyp says he felt truly at home.
Something changed with all the rhythms in his body, he recalls, but he couldn’t quite tell what it was. It wasn’t until years later that he found out that the fishing trip had been on his grandfather’s country.
“I just thought, ‘Far out, this might be what people say,’” Vander-Kuyp recounts. “I’ve got to get back to Country, I’ve got to get rejuvenated.”
Before then, Vander-Kuyp says he had been “a bit lost”. But in reconnecting with his ancestral home, he found a part of himself. He had gotten off the “thin ice” of being valued by his athletic performance; “Am I a good athlete this week,” he used to ask, “or have I let people down?”
Now, in all his speeches, he is proud to introduce himself as a Woromi and Yuin man. “I’m a lot more settled now in the sense of, ‘Who am I?’”
At one of Grow Hope’s Incursions last year, the tone was set by an Indigenous staff member as he performed a traditional dance. Throughout the day, students were guided by young Indigenous leaders on a journey to discover the culture of the land they lived on. They laughed and shouted as they played traditional games such as Marn Grook and Jumpinpin, then sat captivated as the leaders spoke passionately of their culture, and their mission to share it.
On one slide from the presentation, the words “OUR CULTURE” glowed, with the following explanation: “We have chosen the creative expression of ‘our’, as we want to communicate the idea that Australia’s Indigenous culture belongs to us all.” For Vander-Kuyp, the words represent pride, acknowledgement and, most of all, hope.
“That’s probably the goal that all Indigenous people would want – firstly, to be recognised. We’re the longest surviving culture in the world and we want to maintain and preserve our history,” he explains. “But we also want to share it. We want all Australians to feel that they’re part of it. It is the land you live on, you’re born on, you work on, you grow on. It’s everyone’s culture to be excited about.”
“You do have to tread lightly and you have to be sensitive. It can only be done correctly if those conversations are had and the necessary time is taken to sit down and make sure you’re doing it right,” says Vander-Kuyp. “But there’s a difference between pausing to do it right, and stopping and not getting involved at all.”
Five years after the phone call that reconnected Vander-Kuyp and his biological mother, she flew to Melbourne and came to Pat Vander-Kuyp’s house. Finally, his two mothers embraced – each from vastly different backgrounds, but eternally joined by the love of their son.