It's tough enough to make a living as a professional wakeboarder when you're competing and placing in all the contests and pulling down big money from major sponsors. It's even more difficult when you do it by handing down your skills to other riders, many of whom go on to competitive success, as a wakeboarding coach traveling throughout the world. Sean O'Brien has chosen this difficult path because of his love for coaching young talent. Not only has he been extremely successful at it, but he's also managed to remain one of the top wakeboarders in the world in the process.
We recently had the opportunity to spend some time on the lake with Sean, along with Harley Clifford and one of Sean's former students, Shota Tezuka. Watching these two riders, both of whom are at the top of their game, stare in awe as Sean went absolutely huge behind the boat was a very unique experience.
We sat down with Sean to talk about his career, successes, failures, love life and much more...
WW: How many times have you been interviewed by WakeWorld?
SO: I honestly don’t have a clue. I’ve been involved with a lot of things on this site though; interviewing other people, writing articles, shooting events, judging contests, etc.
WW: I was hoping you’d know so that I don’t have to go look it up. Anyway, I hear you’re married now. Why would a doctor marry a professional wakeboarder?
SO: Well, Alissa isn’t just any doctor. She’s a dermatologist. I think she may be using me to build up a client base within this industry (haha). She actually wakeboards, snowboards, rides dirt bikes and even surfs a little bit, so she’s obviously not your typical dermatologist. On top of that, she’s just an amazing person and I get along with her better than anyone I have ever met. I am a very lucky guy.
WW: How did you and your wife meet?
SO: We met through the Internet. She hates that answer, but in a way it’s kind of true. Back in 2004, you called me and asked me to interview this girl who you described as being perfect for me. You told me that she wakeboards, dives with sharks and was getting ready to start medical school. For those who don’t know, I was on track to being a doctor a long time ago, but I decided to pass on med school and wakeboard instead. Anyways, I met up with her, took her out riding, interviewed her and we ended up becoming friends. So WakeWorld actually introduced me to my wife, but it wasn’t until six years later that we started dating.
WW: Did you do anything remotely related to wakeboarding on your honeymoon?
SO: We spent a week in the British Virgin Islands enjoying the sun, sand and crystal clear water. We spent a lot of time on boats and in the water, but we actually didn’t do any riding.
WW: Although many would consider you one of the top riders in the world, you’ve veered away from the contest scene and have concentrated on teaching. Why is that?
SO: I’ve never really got into the contest scene. I tried to do it a few times, but I never really enjoyed it. I felt like my riding was just turning into a training regimen. However, that’s not the reason why I started coaching. I actually started coaching when I was 16, way before I had a career in wakeboarding. It was just something that I really enjoyed, so I just stuck with it. I get so excited helping people learn something for the first time whether it’s how to get up or how to stick a 900. It’s a very rewarding job.
WW: How is your school doing now that you’ve transitioned from a fixed location to a worldwide mobile wakeboarding coach?
SO: It has been great. After running the Orlando Wakeboard Academy for five years, we made a lot of friends from all over the world, so it was pretty easy for me to transition into the role of a traveling coach. It has definitely kept me busy over the past couple of years and I’ve been able to see and experience some incredible things.
WW: Will your travel schedule change at all now that you’re married?
SO: Yeah, it’s going to slow down a little bit. I’ll still be traveling more than a lot of the other riders, but it will no longer be months on end. About two years ago, I was traveling from country to country for about four months straight. Now that I have such an amazing life at home, I don’t really have that same desire to be gone for months on end.
WW: What were the highlights of your travels over the last year?
SO: There are quite a few, but my honeymoon definitely topped them all. Outside of my own personal travels, I had a great trip to Singapore and Indonesia with Jeff Langley, Collin Harrington and Shawn Watson. I think there will be some coverage of the trip coming out in the next couple of months. I also spent some time coaching in the Bahamas, Connecticut, Belgium and Luxembourg, which are always great trips.
On top of that I went to a few new places; Latvia, Portugal and Bodensee in Germany. The crew in Latvia, who were actually the same guys that I met up with in Portugal, were great. They were so excited to ride and willing to push themselves. It was awesome to watch. While I was in Latvia, they also gave me my first kiteboarding lesson. It wasn’t anything special. I just learned to control the kite and do some body dragging. I haven’t taken a big kite out since then, but it’s definitely something that I’d like to learn for those really blown out days where wakeboarding wouldn’t be as fun.
The other new place that I went was Bodensee (Lake Constance) and that place is amazing. Not only did I get to ride on a crystal clear lake surrounded by mountains behind a boat with a massive wake, but I also got to go to a traditional German beer festival. I’m talking about German folk music, suspenders, high socks and everything else that is involved in those types of events.
WW: Where do you want to travel to that you haven’t been to yet?
SO: You really want to go into this? Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Spain, Italy, Croatia, Cyprus, Norway, Russia, UAE, China, Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines, Bali, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Tahiti and, of course, I’d like to travel some more within the U.S. and Canada.
WW: Who are some of the students that have come through your school that we may have heard of?
SO: There have been a lot and I can’t take full credit for all of the guys that have come through the camp. Several of them ride with different schools, coaches or other riders that help inspire them, but here are a few of the guys who I’ve worked with for more than just a couple of weeks; Shota Tezuka, Robby Holihan, Nikita Martianov, Dary Znebel, Austin Pratt and Maxim van Helvoort (you probably haven’t heard of him yet, but the last time he rode with me, he stuck three new mobes in two sets so he’ll be making his way up through the ranks soon enough).
WW: Why does wakeboarding look so much better when you do it than 98% of the wakeboarders in the world?
SO: I’m not sure that it does. There are so many incredible riders out there now and I just try my best to keep up or keep things different. It’s nice to hear that you think I’m doing a good job with it.
WW: What’s your favorite grab? Is that also your most frequently used grab?
SO: My favorite straight air grab to do is a big melan out into the flats. For some reason, I feel like I get a ton of pop and get myself into a good position in the air. My most frequently used grab is probably a nose grab.
WW: What makes your riding different?
SO: I’ve never really been satisfied with just doing a trick and I have the tendency to think outside of the box. That combination has pushed my riding in several directions and has allowed me to come up with variations on tricks that most riders wouldn’t think about. I guess that’s what makes my riding a little unique.
WW: What are you trying to accomplish when you head out for a set?
SO: I just want to have fun. If I’m having a good time then my riding comes naturally and I get motivated to push myself and learn new things. If I ever go off the dock thinking that I have to do something, then mentally I’m not in the right frame of mind to do it. It’s kind if weird, but that’s the way it goes.
WW: What’s the most valuable tip you can give to any rider?
SO: Don’t forget to have fun!!! That is the reason we all started wakeboarding in the first place.
WW: You have one of the best-looking boards on the market, but does it really work? What’s so great about it?
SO: Thanks. I’m really happy that O’Brien allowed me to work so closely with them in developing the Paradigm. Chris Johnson and I really worked a lot on flex patterns to figure out what works and what doesn’t and, in my opinion, our final product turned out better than I could have ever imagined. So, yes, the Paradigm really does work and it seems like the guys doing the board test for Alliance would agree to that as well.
It is a little different than the other boards on the market in the sense that the board was designed to be stiffer in the middle and flex more at the tip and tail of the board. By maintaining stiffness through the middle of the board, you get a similar pop to traditional boards, but by incorporating the flex towards the ends you get a more playful feel while you’re on the water. This design also helps to soften the landings a little bit, reduces swing weight and makes the board incredibly fun to ride on both the boat and the cable.
WW: Are you making any changes to it for 2013?
SO: We won’t be making any real changes to the board, but it looks like we might be adding an extra size to the line-up. I tested out a 129 prototype a few months ago and had a blast riding it. I was able to land everything easily and still go big out into the flats. I was very surprised how well I could ride on a small board. Truth be told, I recently stepped down from the Paradigm 139 to the 134 and have yet to find any negative impact on my riding.
WW: Have you ever eaten at Dick’s Last Resort (I’m just including this question so that I can show everyone the picture of you with that silly hat)?
SO: Yep. You, Alissa and I had lunch there back in March and I was actually a little disappointed. I expected them to be much more offensive and vulgar. Those guys need to step up their game.
WW: Last time we were in Orlando, we got the most important hookup ever when your dad took care of us in the emergency room (photographer Randy Murray broke his shoulder just hours after these photos were taken). Do you have any plans to follow in his footsteps some day?
SO: You know I’ve got a lot of ideas about what I’d like to do when I grow up, but none of them involve going to med school and becoming a doctor anymore. My dad, my brother and my wife are all doctors and now my sister is talking about going to med school. I think I need to keep things different. I’d actually love nothing more than to stay in the industry that I’ve grown up in.
WW: Which riders do you think make wakeboarding look amazing?
SO: Time for another long list; Shota Tezuka, Jeff Lagley, Josh Palma, Bob Soven, Harley, Randall, Watson, Aaron Rathy, Dean Smith, Josh Twelker, Raph Derome, Chris O’Shea, Ben Greenwood, Danny Harf and Shaun Murray, of course. These are just some of my top picks, but I honestly respect and get inspired from everyone’s riding.
WW: What did you do for Memorial Day weekend?
SO: I just spent the weekend in Orlando. Alissa was working at a derm conference, so I just took off and played with some friends while she was busy. Some of the highlights included surfing the 4-7ft. swell generated by Tropical Storm Beryl, riding behind Austin Pratt’s loaded down Axis A22, going to see The Dictator and having a very lazy Memorial Day with my wife while the storm sent tons of much needed rain our way. It was a good weekend.
WW: Has anybody shot any video of you lately? It’s been way too long since we’ve seen something.
SO: I know. I actually just talked to some friends and we are going to start filming more. Hopefully we’ll be able to put out a few web videos this summer. I’ve got some things that I want to work on.
WW: What are your plans for the rest of 2012?
SO: I’ve got a month’s worth of clinics to do in Europe and I’ll be doing some clinics in the States. There will probably be a few more trips after summer is over, but I don’t have them lined up yet. Outside of coaching, my goal is to be more involved with photo shoots and video shoots, both in front of and behind the lens. I also plan on being a good husband to my supportive wife.
WW: Who would we normally see you riding with while you're in Orlando?
SO: When I’m in Orlando I tend to ride with Cobe and Tarah Mikacich, Jeff Langley, Josh Palma, Robby Holihan and Austin Pratt. They are all a lot of fun to ride with.
WW: Do you do much cable riding?
SO: I like to go as much as possible, but if I have the option of riding boat or cable, I’ll take the boat any day. I really should ride the cable a bit more since that side of the sport just keeps on growing. It’s crazy how good some of those guys are getting.
WW: What is your favorite trick to do? What trick do you think looks best?
SO: Every time I get this question, I have a hard time answering it. Big indy rolls to blind out into the flats feel really cool, but so do tail grab backside 180s, grab crows, and late grabbed tantrums to blind. The fact of the matter is that I love doing every trick that I can do, so it’s really hard to pick a favorite. As for the best looking, it is probably the nose grab toeside osmosis 720.
WW: Any words of advice to the youngsters that want to make a living out of wakeboarding, but don’t necessarily want to ride in tournaments?
SO: It’s not the easiest road to take, but it can be done. There are a few key points to it though.
- Make sure you love what you do!!!
- Keep your riding unique. There are tons of riders out there who can do a lot of tricks, but yours have to stand out.
- It’s not always about your riding. Have a good attitude and be personable. It will go a long way.
- Remember that if you are going to live off of wakeboarding that it actually is a “job” (albeit a very fun one). Like any other job, if you aren’t producing something valuable to your sponsors then you will be replaced.
- Make sure you find your niche in the industry and try to do it better than everybody else.
- I hope that helps.
WW: Any shout-outs?
SO: Big thanks to the greatest wife, family and friends that I could ever ask for. You guys mean the world to me and I have no idea what I would do without all of your love and support. Thanks to all of the guys at O’Brien, Axis, Smith, Rusty, XCEL and Liquid Sports Marine for their constant support and the best product on the market. Thanks to the wakeboard industry, the mags and all of the athletes involved for keeping me inspired and allowing me to have a job that I absolutely love. And last, but not least, thank you WakeWorld and all of its members for all of the support and distractions over the years. You have no idea how many smiles you have brought to my face.