Bush Beat: Rugby, resilience and the inspiring school of hard Knox

Stu Walmsley.
by Stu Walmsley

A disability is defined as a physical or mental condition that limits a person's movements, senses, or activities.

Which doesn't even come close to describing Knox Gibson, let alone defining him.

After losing much of his right arm in an accident with a lawn mower at the age of three, the 11-year-old Orange Emus junior is already a rugby player, state swimmer, actor, reporter, model, disability advocate and brand ambassador.

Tomorrow he will learn a few skills from Stephen Moore when the Classic Wallabies hold a coaching clinic at Endeavour Oval prior to taking on the Central West Barbarians, but encounters with past and present Wallaby captains are becoming a frequent occurence in what has been a whirlwind few years for Knox and his family.

“Knox actually met Stephen Moore at the launch of the Invictus Games in Sydney last month,” says mum Kate Gibson.

“That was after meeting Michael Hooper and the Waratahs at Allianz Stadium in July and being interviewed at the training session for The Project.”

He nailed his appearance on Channel 10’s current affairs panel program, but Knox has had a little more time in the spotlight than most bush kids.

A regional city of 40,000 people, Orange sits 260km north west of Sydney over the Blue Mountains, and it’s a drive parents Kate and Jack could probably now manage with their eyes closed as they continue to honour their youngest child’s dizzying array of commitments.

Acting in an advertisement for Breeze Singapore in 2015 led to an ambassador role for Starting With Julius, a not-for-profit which campaigns for equal representation of people with a disability in advertising. 


Appearances in a wide array of campaigns and television programs have followed, as well as an unexpected gig at the 2017 International Kids Fashion Parade in Melbourne.

“All the top child models in Australia were there, and then they had Knox, this country kid,” says Kate, of her son’s catwalk debut. “He was the only child with a disability, as well, which was a really big thing. It was huge.”

On the back of appearing in ABC show What’s It Like, which profiles youth whose stories and perspectives are seldom seen or heard, Knox was chosen to host Lap Of Honour, a program aired as part of the network’s recent Invictus Games coverage introducing the athletes to younger viewers.


These journalistic duties led to a touching moment in competition when war hero and long jumper Michael Lyddiard completed his final attempt with Knox by his side.

“Michael had actually torn his hamstring but he still wanted to jump so his competitor could win the gold medal. Then he let Knox keep the silver medal,” Kate Gibson says.

“I think the whole experience really inspired Knox. It showed him what, potentially, he could be capable of.”

 

When Kate and Jack Gibson bear witness to their son’s extraordinary experiences, they must occasionally flash back to the waiting room at Orange Base Hospital where they nervously waited in August 2011 for Knox to arrive in an ambulance from his grandparents’ farm near Manildra.

“It was awful. It’s one of those phone calls you never want to receive,” Kate says. “We were just home from work and we got the call from Jack’s mother saying there’d been an accident, but she didn’t go into the extent of it, so we didn’t know what to expect.

“We just drove to the hospital in Orange to meet the ambulance when it arrived. We didn’t know….. we had no idea what we were going to find.”

Earlier that day, Knox had been helping his grandfather change a flat tyre on the lawn mower, and had then been told to stay in the ute while grandpa did a few laps of the yard to recharge the battery.

“Unbeknownst to him, Knox got out of the ute,” says Jack Gibson,” I’ve always said to the kids, if someone’s mowing you walk behind the lawn mower, not in front of it. So he’s walked behind the lawn mower, my old man’s gone to back into the shed, and reversed over the top of him.

“He looked down and the only thing sticking out was his head - the rest of him was under the lawnmower.

“He thought he was dead, initially, but he picked him up and walked the 500 metres back up to the house and then put him in the car to meet the ambulance.”

Knox was transferred almost immediately to The Children's Hospital at Westmead in Sydney where he spent a month recovering from his injuries, but the Gibsons know how much worse it could have been.

“His Grosby boots saved his life,” Kate says, “It got sucked off his foot somehow and jammed the pulley and stopped the blades.

“His arm was obviously the worst, but he had deep lacerations to his right leg, down to the bone, and also a fracture in his right leg.”

The Gibsons retell this experience at a junior gala day in Mudgee as Knox runs in yet another try for Emus under 11s, and elder sister Arabella (12) gives a telling response when asked if the incident has changed how she sees her sibling.

“No, he’s still annoying,” she says.

Nor does she apparently pull any punches in the three-way contests in the family’s backyard with Knox and oldest brother Hamish (14), also an Emus junior and a Central West representative player.

The family certainly don’t make light of what Knox has been through, but Emus first-grade captain Nigel Staniforth summed up their practical approach when asked about the senior team’s favourite ball kid.

“His attitude is just so positive and he’s very humble, and his family are very humble, they don’t expect anything, and Knox just gets on with it and makes the most of the opportunities which come his way,” says Staniforth, who grew up with brother and ex-Wallaby Scott Staniforth on a property near West Wyalong, 240km south west of Orange.

Knox followed Hamish into the junior ranks at Emus at the age of seven and is now something of a minor celebrity in the Central West Rugby community.

“You come to these gala days and everyone knows him - he does stand out obviously because of his arm - but it’s also because he’s got no fear,” Kate says. “He doesn’t hold back; he’ll just go in and tackle one of the biggest players on the field.

“I think people like that fact; he might only have half an arm, but he’ll still go in and play hard.”

This is a sentiment echoed by Emus juniors and wallas coordinator Rob Nixon, who is also co-coach of the Central West under 12 representative team Knox had made the first cut for.

“He’s always getting in there and pilfering ball and also running with it, he scores a huge amount of tries,” Nixon says. “He’s well known around the zone, obviously because of his disability, but mostly for his character. He’s just a good, positive kid.

“The only area where he is a bit behind on skill is obviously his passing, but he’s a good chance of making that final squad in December. It certainly won’t be on sympathy, it will be on merit.”

It’s often said that kids can be cruel, but they are also naturally curious and not particularly subtle, and Knox takes a pragmatic approach to queries about what happened to his arm.

 “I just tell them; ‘I lost it in an accident with a lawn mower’, but sometimes we make jokes out of it,” he says. “One time Hamish (elder brother) told a little kid it was bitten off by a shark.

“At my sister’s rep netball carnival in Penrith a kid called me a one-armed freak. I wasn’t really too happy, but who cares what they think, just go on with your life and have fun.”

As Nixon observed, Knox does have a Pocock-like ability to miraculously emerge from a tangle of junior bodies with possession, despite apparently being the most physically ill-equipped to do so - but he’s in no doubt about what aspect of the game appeals to him most.

“Tackling. I love tackling,” he says. “I also don’t mind soccer, it’s alright, but not amazing, because it’s a bit of a sook’s sport, but when I grow up I’m probably thinking about being a rugby player, or maybe a builder, or maybe a manager for a team.”

Speaking on ABC program What’s It Like, Knox also had some sage advice for young people dealing with a disability.

“I’d like people to know that, even though if you do have an accident, just keep going, don’t just put yourself down, don’t think; ‘I can’t do anything now’, always try harder and try to do the best you can do.”

 With growing opportunities for athletes with a physical impairment and more brands wanting to represent and embrace diversity, there are some exciting pathways forming for Knox, but many who know him already see his everyday actions as an inspiration.

“Well, I think he is, definitely - not that he would call himself that,” Kate says.

"And we don’t tell him that, either,” Jack laughs. “We try to keep him well grounded.”

 

There certainly seems no immediate danger of their 11-year-old turning into a prima donna, something illustrated at a Bush 2 Beach Drought Relief Gala day held at Narrabeen on Sydney’s northern beaches last month.

Noticing the Wellington team were short a few players, Knox volunteered to swap Emu green for the maroon jersey of their Central West rival, and played out the whole tournament with the Redbacks.

“Yeah, he’s always done that, he’s the first to put his hand up if the opposition are short,” Emus junior coordinator Nixon says.

“He doesn’t care which jersey he has on, as long as he’s wearing one.”

The Classic Wallabies play Central West at Endeavour Oval at 4pm on Saturday November 17. Gates open at 11am, with kids clinics and warm-up games throughout the day. Buy tickets at the gate or here.