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Beau Vernon.

Beau Vernon shares his inspiring story of overcoming challenges to represent Australia in rugby, pursue a successful career, and live a fulfilling life with his loving family.

Feb 12, 2023


Words: Gippslandia
Images: Supplied

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You can hear the excitement as Beau Vernon shares that he’s back training with the Australian rugby team. After his family, sport means everything to Beau. He loves it: loves the exercise and the community that surrounds it. To have the goal of getting back to representing his nation at the highest levels of competition brings a buzz to the conversation.

But the game won’t be easy. As a defensive player, Beau will be expected to block for his teammates, and he’ll be copping some hits.

On the bike, Beau won two national championships. He explains that he’s always loved individual sports, but finds that competing in team sports brings out more passion in him. Hence, he’s explored a pretty wide mix of activities over the years. There’s surfing (which is great for the mental space it provides too), kayaking, boxing, weight training, darts, golf, table tennis and, of course, footy.

With three busy kids, board responsibilities and the new training regimen, not to mention his wonderful wife, Lucy, he’s recently had to resign from coaching his much-loved Phillip Island Bulldogs. Beau coached the Leongatha senior team to a Grand Final victory before coming over to the Bulldogs in 2018 to snag another one. This year, he bowed out after an additional Grand Final appearance, and truth be told, he likely could have guided the side to more finals if it wasn’t for the pandemic.

Beau’s got a skill for inspiring others.

After studying economics and finance at RMIT, Beau is currently a director at Interact Australia and a non-executive director at MRAEL. Both businesses are part of IntoWork Australia, a leading national provider of employment, skills and support services that enable educational, economic and workforce participation.

Through his role with Interact Australia, Beau’s seen that more businesses appear open to employing a diverse workforce, but laments that employment rates for many groups haven’t increased yet. This can be a little stupefying, as there’s considerable evidence that increased diversity in the workplace increases productivity for the company and overall employee satisfaction.

Beau believes that more employers need to raise their expectations of what can be achieved by physically or mentally diverse people: “You need to be able to see what people can do, not what they can’t.” Often the employer is viewing the outcome of their talent through the wrong prism, as Beau explains through a sporting analogy: “The very best players on a team make all their teammates better, which is way more beneficial than having singular brilliant players that don’t uplift anyone, possibly even being detrimental to the rest of the team.”

You come to understand that another motivation for Beau in his work with Interact Australia is that he went through a period where he felt: “Lost, lonely, worthless. I felt less of a person. [In retrospect] I don’t think it was because I was now a quadriplegic. I didn’t have a job, I couldn’t play footy, I had no structure and purpose to get up in the morning.

“I think everyone that hasn’t had employment or something meaningful in their life has felt these emotions before, whether you have a disability or not.”

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As an accomplished speaker, Beau makes the most of his opportunities to motivate those outside of the board and clubroom too. He focuses on reminding the audience to be the best possible version of themselves – cultivating a healthy mindset is how we deal with the challenging situations that arise as we journey through life – and that everyone can live a life that fulfills them. To achieve each of these attributes, we must not let fear dictate our lives, but rather put ourselves into those situations where failure is possible so that we can grow.

Obviously, Beau’s words don’t ring hollow. For instance, heading out into solid surf at Cape Woolamai can challenge anyone, but Beau was bound to determine a way to continue his oceanic adventures. His surfboard has two propellers underneath it and, through a Bluetooth link to his watch, he can control the propellers as he needs.

Sure, just over 10 years ago, he didn’t have to think about this – about how to reconfigure his surfboard, or a kayak and his fishing rod, or even his approach to golf – he would have just jumped into it. But, a decade ago Beau hadn’t dislocated the fifth and sixth vertebrae in his neck when a football tackle went wrong.

As Beau explains, as he was scooping up the footy, he was collected in the head by an opponent: “It wasn't a big hit, just the wrong angle and wrong time.”

"I fell to the ground and knew straight away something was very wrong," he said.

Beau feels that he’s very lucky, as the further up your spine you damage, the less movement you have.

“I’ve got no movement from my chest down. I can’t move my fingers or my thumbs. I’ve got a little muscle in the pec minor that works but the major muscle itself doesn’t… Essentially, what I do have working is my bicep muscles, my shoulder muscles, and my high back and neck muscles.

“It’s amazing when you’re thrown into this situation; you learn that you’re far more capable than you think you are.”

At the time of the injury, Beau was 23 years old. He was airlifted from the ground, then placed in an induced coma for a week. His spinal cord was squashed and emergency surgery was performed to release the pressure. Four screws and a plate were inserted, as well as bone from his hip, to fuse the damaged section of his neck. After another five weeks in hospital, Beau was transferred to a rehabilitation centre, where he lived for seven months.

Beau said that the beginning of his stay in the rehab centre was the first time that he’d been alone since the injury. As Beau recounted on ABC Radio:

“... bearing that was hard and I just started crying uncontrollably. I couldn’t feed myself. Couldn’t go to the toilet by myself. Never have I been so far from where I thought my life should be.

“It was a good moment, looking back. As hard as it was, I was able to release a lot of emotion off my chest there.

“I could understand that the situation was hard, but I was able to then look and think, ‘Well I can’t control this now, but I still

want to live a good life and be a positive influence on the people around me. I want to be happy, so what can I actually do about that?”

Flip back to the beginning of this piece: there’s national level sport representation; winning footy grand finals with teams and communities that you’re passionate about; an incredibly successful career that delivers genuine positive change to valuable, but too often overlooked, members of society; and you’re raising a loving and supportive family.

Yeah Beau, we’d say that you’re doing it.


To hear more of Beau's inspirational story head to: beauvernon.com

Gippslandia - Issue No. 25

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