NRL Titans player Will Zillman has reinvented himself as a horse trainer/whisperer in the beautiful Currumbin Valley.
NRL Titans player Will Zillman has reinvented himself as a horse trainer/whisperer in the beautiful Currumbin Valley. Jerad Williams

Career change paves the road to reinvention

WILL ZILLMAN

Professional athlete to horse whisperer

It's a well-known phenomenon that professional sportspeople can lose their way when they retire but NRL veteran Will Zillman seems to have found his.

There certainly wouldn't be too many ex-footy players who re-emerge as horsemen but Will always had an eye on where he was heading.

"I was working on it for a couple of years actually,” the former Gold Coast Titans luminary says. "For the past four or five years I was playing, I'd spend the off seasons learning as much as I could about different methods of horsemanship.

"I'd contact people whose styles I admired and ask them if I could spend time with them. I didn't mind paying. I even travelled overseas to some of them and I just learned so much in those years.”

Will, 31, comes from a long line of horse and cattlemen. His family on his mother's side has been on the same cattle property outside Proserpine, in the Whitsundays region, for more than 100 years.

"I've always loved riding horses,” he says. "And I've always had that thirst for knowledge about them.”

But being a prodigious footy talent waylaid him for a while. Will played rugby league in his junior years but switched to rugby union at high school in Brisbane and, in 2003, was selected in the Australian Schoolboys side.

He returned to league the next year and was offered a junior contract with the Canberra Raiders. He played in the Queensland Under-19s side and the Australian Junior Kangaroos in 2005 before making his NRL debut for Canberra in 2006 at 19.

"In the five years I was in Canberra, I would have only ridden once or twice a year,” Will says. "But when I came to the Gold Coast, I wanted to get back into it again.”

After he signed with the Gold Coast Titans in 2009, Will bought land and a quarter horse and started to read all he could about horsemanship. He began doing a bit of work with horses on the side, as much as being a professional footy player would allow.

Horses gave him an escape from the world of professional rugby league and the demands of the weekly win/loss cycle. He says horses allowed him to get to know himself better.

After retiring from footy at the end of last season, Will now runs his own business offering a full range of horsemanship services, specialising in starting and training horses and the subtle art of achieving rider-horse synchronicity.

"I work with a huge range of different horses and people,” Will says. "Quite a bit of my work is starting horses - I don't use the word breaking - and I've settled into a method that gives the horse the best opportunity to do well without too much force.”

Will espouses a gentler approach than the old breaking methods of dominating a horse and he's happy that's the direction the industry seems to be heading.

"There's a lot of people out there these days who're very conscious of the welfare of the horse and so many people want to relate to their horse and have that connection with them, so all my clients are pretty much on the same page as me.”

Will is happy to share his horse stories, running through some of the animals that have left their mark on him. It's hard to remember him speaking about rugby league with such passion.

"I love working with ex-racehorses,” Will says. "There are some great people these days who take them on. They're so talented, those big thoroughbreds.

"I'm working with a stockhorse at the moment, a gelding, and he's one of the quickest learners I've ever seen. He's a bit of a nervy horse but I'm training him. He's a real special case.

"Then there was a waler. They were the horses taken into World War One by the Australian Light Horse. You can see why. They have a real calm about them. She was the most beautiful looking mare.

"The thing I love about this work though is that every horse and client is different.”

But the question remains? After 13 years in the NRL, does he miss footy?

"The answer is a bit of a cliche,” he says. "Parts of it I miss, the camaraderie that comes with being close to a bunch of really good mates every day and going through the ups and downs together. But this is pretty hard to beat.”

Kim was a radio announcer who has become a chef.
Kim was a radio announcer who has become a chef. Glenn Hampson

KIM DENNISON

Radio announcer to chef

Sometimes necessity is the mother of reinvention. Kim Dennison had been a radio announcer since she was 19, taking up her first position at 2VM Moree in 1980 after graduating from radio school.

Over the next 20 or so years, she worked at commercial radio stations from Townsville to Gosford and MMM in Sydney before landing a gig with ABC Gold Coast, where she was an on-air presenter for 10 years.

After a restructure, she found herself back in the commercial radio market, never the most secure of employment playgrounds, particularly for a single woman looking for a stable long-term income.

"I was driving up to Brisbane for radio work - I still loved radio - but I knew it was time to come up with a plan,” Kim says.

Kim, a passionate foodie and home cook, began a word-of-mouth catering business, testing her skills beyond her family and friends.

"I've always been passionate about food so I thought I'd do something I enjoyed doing,” Kim says.

From there, she started casual work in a cafe kitchen to upgrade her skills and supplement her radio shifts, which were mainly at nights and weekends. Her next big step was to formalise her qualifications. She enrolled in chef training through TAFE.

"That was a shock to the system,” Kim says. "Going to TAFE as an older woman in an environment with 17-year-olds, it's quite tough.”

But Kim persisted with the workbooks and practical tests and graduated as a qualified chef. It roughly coincided with her radio employer Magic 882 announcing it was broadcasting networked programming from Melbourne, making all its on-air staff in Brisbane redundant in one fell swoop.

By then Kim was already set on her new path, working full-time in a cafe kitchen.

She's now landed a dream job, the chef at Bluebird Early Education Centre, where she's planning to use her creativity to get children to enjoy eating fun, healthy food.

She's also still on air as a fill-in weekend presenter at ABC Gold Coast.

"I suppose that's not bad to still be working in radio after 38 years,” she says. "I'm studying up on podcasting at the moment too so I can dabble in that. I've always liked being busy.”

Darren Jones was a corporate high flyer in London who decided to become a school teacher.
Darren Jones was a corporate high flyer in London who decided to become a school teacher. Richard Gosling

DARREN JONES

Corporate executive to schoolteacher

"Some men buy Harley-Davidsons, but I went to Griffith University - no man buns though.”

That's how high school teacher Darren Jones explains his midlife career change from corporate high flyer to educator.

Darren, 48, graduated from his Townsville high school with the highest possible tertiary entrance score but, back in the day, didn't really receive any career guidance. He enrolled in the relatively new course of computer science at James Cook University and learned computer programming.

"I was working my way up the technical ranks when I suppose someone recognised that I was quite good at talking to people so they stuck me in a business suit and had me dealing with clients,” he says.

He met his English doctor wife, Lorraine, in Australia and they returned to live in London where Darren worked for BT, a multinational telecommunications company. His role was co-ordinating systems for the pharmaceutical industry and he travelled extensively to Europe and the US, courted clients and politicians and worked crazy hours.

"It was a big gig,” he says. "It was financially rewarding but I suppose I had a yearning to have a house with a driveway and a better lifestyle.”

Darren had stints working for telecommunications companies but, by then, his two daughters had come along and he realised he was missing out on seeing them grow up.

"I suppose I was in a position where I could do something about it,” Darren says.

"Teaching came to me because my older brother is a schoolteacher at a Catholic college in Melbourne. He'd say to me he genuinely loved going to work every day and that always stuck with me.”

He took the plunge at 42, leaving work and enrolling in a Diploma of Education.

He's now teaching maths and computing in the private system and says the good news is he loves teaching.

"You certainly don't do teaching for the social status or the money,” Darren says. "But when you get feedback from kids or parents that you're doing a good job, when they say thank you, that's pretty rewarding.

"No one ever said thank you very much in big business.”


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