Not only is Sean O’Brien one of wakeboarding’s most stylish riders, his reputation is unmatched. Sean travels around the world as a mobile coach and leaves a lasting impression wherever he goes. We caught up with Sean to see how things are going at his school, Florida Wake, and to get his advice on how to make it as a pro wakeboarder without competing.
WW: For those that might not know, where are you from and how did you first get into riding?
SOB: I grew up in the wakeboarding capital of the world, Orlando, Florida. Back then, wakeboarding really wasn’t as prevalent as it is now and I didn’t grow up in a family with much experience in water sports or boating. It was really by chance that I ended up in this sport. Mike Weddington’s aunt and uncle were friends with my parents and about a week before Worlds Mike wasn’t feeling so great, so his aunt recommended that he see my dad, who is an ER physician. Well, whatever my dad did must have worked and Mike went on to win Worlds. As a token of gratitude, I ended up with a full wakeboard setup. After that, Mike’s aunt and uncle talked my parents into buying a boat for the family. At that point, I started spending every day on the water.
WW: As a resident ER doctor in Orlando, I’m sure your dad has seen his fair share of wakeboarders. Did you ever consider following in his footsteps?
SOB: Everyone loves the fact that my dad is an ER doc. You have no idea how many phone calls I’ve received where the first sentence was, "So, is your dad working?" Growing up around medicine I always figured I would take that path. I was pre-med in undergrad, but during that time I started making a name for myself in wakeboarding. With the support of my parents, I decided to forego taking the MCAT, finish undergrad and start a wakeboard school after graduating. At that point, pursuing a career in medicine became my fallback plan and I’ve been fortunate enough to never look back.
WW: Now that you aren’t competing as much, what are you up to?
SOB: I am actually doing this interview 36,000 feet in the air on my way back from coaching in Ecuador. Contests were never really my thing, but I’m hoping to do a couple events this year. I was always more of a freerider and a coach. I have been teaching wakeboarding for the past 16 years and that’s what I continue to do. I love growing the sport and sharing experiences on the water with people.
WW: What made you decide to start another wake school in a new location?
SOB: Since 2010, I have spent a lot of time traveling around the world running clinics. My plan was always to come back and start another wakeboard school, but I wasn’t 100% sure on the location. During that time my wife was doing her residency and we wanted to figure out where we were going to live before I started a new school. At one point the plan was to move back to Orlando. However, everything changed after a trip down to Jupiter. When we got into town, we went straight to the inlet at sunset. The water had that Bahamas blue look to it and the waves were head-high and glassy. I saw the smile on my wife’s face and I realized this was it. This was where she wanted to be and I couldn’t have imagined a better location.
WW: How are things at Florida Wake going?
SOB: Things are going well so far. I’ve got all of the riding spots and wind directions figured out. There isn’t a huge wakeboard scene down here, but it is slowly growing. Every time we go out on the water, we turn some heads and generate more interest. It’s actually a lot of fun riding here because people get so excited when they see a decent wakeboarder and they are shocked when they see someone wakesurfing. It reminds me of how excited I was when I started.
WW: What does a day at your school look like?
SOB: There is no typical day. Sometimes I’m doing lessons with locals on my boat. Other days I’m doing lessons on their boats. When I’ve got riders visiting from out of town, then we spend a lot of time wakeboarding, but we also go to the beach to surf, stand-up paddle or snorkel. Jupiter really is an amazing place, so I try to make sure visitors get to experience everything there is to offer.
WW: Do you prefer Jupiter to the old location in Orlando or vice versa? Why?
SOB: That’s a tough one since there are so many great things about both locations. Obviously, Orlando is basically the Mecca for wakeboarding. The majority of the industry is located there. There are lakes everywhere and plenty of wakeboard schools to choose from. On top of that, the wakeboard community in general is much larger on both the professional and amateur levels…so that’s pretty cool.
Even though Jupiter doesn’t have as large of a wakeboarding community, there is a much larger water activity based community. It seems like everyone here is into wakeboarding, kiteboarding, surfing, stand-up paddling, fishing, snorkeling, scuba diving or boating in general. There are some gorgeous spots to ride on the Intracoastal Waterway and the local rivers. To top it off, the climate in Jupiter has a more tropical feel with warmer weather throughout the winter and vibrant blue water to ride on. Even though Orlando holds a special spot in my heart, I prefer my new location in Jupiter.
WW: Are you the only coach there or do you have some other coaches on board?
SOB: As of right now, I am the only coach and I’ll keep it that way until I can no longer handle doing everything myself. So, if you sign up for lessons then it’s guaranteed that you’ll be riding with me.
WW: Obviously coaching is a very rewarding job. How cool is it to see Shota, one of your previous students, doing so well?
SOB: First of all, there is no way that I can take all of the credit for Shota. He had previous coaching and they did a wonderful job. The first time I saw Shota ride I was blown away. It wasn’t necessarily the moves he was doing, but how comfortable he was riding. I immediately knew he had what it takes to make it in wakeboarding. He was determined and had effortless style. He just needed someone to push him and give him pointers along the way to get his riding to the next level. We clicked really well and it was incredible watching him learn moves faster than anyone I had ever seen. It just makes me happy to see him make a career out of wakeboarding. He’s not the only one. There are plenty of kids that I coached over the years that have worked their way up to earn sponsorships and recognition in this sport. I’m proud of all of them.
WW: How often do you still get out to ride?
SOB: I still ride all the time. Over the past year, I’ve been riding a lot with Mac Schramm in Stuart. The kid rips and it’s been a lot of fun watching him learn new moves. As a result, it keeps me inspired to keep pushing my own riding.
WW: How can people get a chance to see you ride?
SOB: There are all sorts of web videos that have been posted over the years and I’m currently working on a website called WakeMoves.com that shows tricks being done properly. The site is still in its infancy and will always be a work in progress, but the goal is to give the user an opportunity to see a good version of a trick as well as giving them a reference to compare to when they are analyzing their own videos. As for seeing me ride in person, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can try to figure something out. I can either come to your place to do a clinic and ride or we can work out a way for you to hop on the boat with me in Jupiter. I’m also planning on doing a couple events this year, so check out FloridaWake.com every once in a while to see if I’m coming to your town.
WW: So do you travel as much as you always have?
SOB: I’m still traveling, but I am starting to cut back a little bit so I can focus on Florida Wake and grow it to what I know it can be.
WW: Where has been your favorite place you’ve traveled so far?
SOB: That’s too hard to answer. Wakeboarding has allowed me to travel all over the world and has introduced me to so many incredible friends that it’s really hard to choose one place over another. Every place that I have been is unique and special to me. With that being said, I’ve made three trips down to Ecuador this past year. The weather is always hot and water conditions are perfect, the food is delicious and the people are outstanding.
WW: You have one of the most original styles. Where do you draw your inspiration from and how can I make my riding look more like yours?
SOB: Thanks. I really appreciate that. I know that most people would say that their inspiration comes from other sports like snowboarding and skateboarding, but I never paid that much attention to anything other than wakeboarding. I lived and breathed wakeboarding. I studied all of the videos and magazines. My inspiration came from the pros before me and eventually the guys that I was riding with. It’s not that I would try to imitate them, but rather put my own spin on things. I would grab the board differently, tweak myself into different positions and generally think outside the box. I would get bored doing the same tricks like everyone else, so I would do them differently. As for as trying to ride like me, just stay creative. Try doing things differently and have fun while you do it.
WW: Are you working on any videos?
SOB: We are going to be shooting some video projects for O’Brien and I’m going to be working on my own little project. There are a lot of things that I have done over the years that I really want to get on film, so it is going to be a fun year.
WW: What are your plans for 2015?
My main focus will be on Florida Wake and growing the wakeboard scene here in South Florida. I’m also going to do some traveling clinics and I’d actually like to compete in a couple events this year. On top of that, I’ll be adding more content to WakeMoves.com as well as converting our old school site, OrlandoWake.com, into a site that focuses more on wakeboarding in the Orlando area.
WW: The wakeboard scene has had many dramatic changes in the last few years, especially since you were competing. What do you think the future has in store?
SOB: Well, on the boat side of things, the boats have gotten much larger and the wakes have grown proportionately. However, I’m not sure I would register this as a dramatic change, but more of a steady progression. Riders have always been pushing for bigger wakes and we’ve always manipulated boats to displace more water. As a result, it makes the impossible possible, the hard tricks easier and it allows more style to show through.
But, at what point does this become unreasonable? Are we going to be building massive wakeboard boats so we can get a chest high wake? That would be amazing, but I think most of my neighbors would be pissed. I’m not sure I could afford the fuel and I know that I couldn’t afford the boat. As the average boat price creeps up every year, I feel like we are making it harder for more people to enjoy this side of the sport. At some point, it seems like the boating industry will have to look at the cost vs. benefit of these boats for the general public and not just the top athletes, but I guess when all is said and done it really just comes down to supply and demand. I’m just happy that Axis and a few other companies are building boats with the necessary features and perfectly shaped wakes while keeping things a little more affordable.
As for the most dramatic change in wakeboarding, it is, without a doubt, cable riding. It’s crazy how much of a shift there has been. Cables have been popping up everywhere over the past several years. If you look online, there seems to be about ten cable videos to every boat video and what those riders are doing is really impressive. I love the fact that cable parks are bringing all sorts of fresh blood into our sport and it’s providing an alternative to boat riding that is more affordable. I’m hoping that this will help bring more people into both aspects of the sport.
WW: Do you ever get out to the cable?
SOB: I ride the cable every once in a while. I am definitely more inclined to ride boat because that is where my passion lies, but I do have a lot of fun on the cable. I just wish there was one closer to me. Ski Rixen is about an hour from my house, but my boat is right out my back door.
WW: Do you think it’s possible to make it as a pro wakeboarder without competing?
SOB: Of course I think it’s possible, but I don’t think it’s easy. I also think it’s important to define "making it." Does that mean that you are able to survive solely on your riding by doing photo shoots and videos? Does that mean you will be able to retire based on money you earned off of riding? That would be tough. But, if you include coaching or working in different aspects of the sport, then it makes it a little more manageable…still not easy though. In order to have a career in wakeboarding, and probably most careers in general, it is important to find your niche and stick with it. There are tons of really great riders, but as a rider it is really important to be unique and separate yourself from the pack in one way or another.
WW: Who’s your favorite rider to watch?
SOB: This question and "What is my favorite trick?" have always been impossible for me to answer without spitting off a gigantic list. I love watching the riders who go out and have the most fun on the water. They have a big smile on their face and you can tell there is no place they would rather be.
WW: Who would you like to thank?
SOB: I absolutely need to thank my incredible wife, family and friends for their never-ending support, guidance and love. I also need to thank everyone at O’Brien, Rusty, Axis, Smith and XCEL for building amazing products and keeping me well supplied with them over the years. I wouldn’t be able to do any of this without your support. Thanks to Intermarine down here in Jupiter for helping me get Florida Wake established and helping me try to grow the sport down here. And, of course, a huge thanks to WakeWorld and the rest of the wakeboard community for all of the inspiration and support that you have provided over the years.