Admit it: Before Connor O’Leary blitzed the World Qualifying Series in 2016 — winning the whole damn thing and qualifying for the World Tour — you had no idea who he was. And that’s OK. Neither did we.
The half-Irish, half-Japanese goofyfoot from Cronulla, Australia, has always flown under the radar. He never won a junior championship title — hell, he never even qualified to compete for one — he’s never had a six-figure contract and he’s never been hailed as “the next big thing” by pro-surf pundits.
So when he won the Qualifying Series (QS), besting a highly touted group of World Tour qualifiers that included Leonardo Fioravanti, Ezekiel Lau, Ethan Ewing and Frederico Morais, a lot of people (us included) asked, “Connor … who?”
But even if you didn’t know O’Leary by name, you couldn’t deny his obvious merits on a surfboard. His tack-sharp backside attack and clinical frontside rail work turned heads from the very start of the 2017 World Tour season. O’Leary earned a quarterfinal finish at the Quik Pro Gold Coast, followed by a second-place result at the Outerknown Fiji Pro, which marked only his fifth appearance in an elite-level event. As of press time, he sits in 10th place overall, leading the rookie class with three events to go. Considering the likelihood of him finishing the season as Rookie of the Year, and the damage he’s sure to do on Tour for the foreseeable future, O’Leary is finally finding himself in the unfamiliar glow of the spotlight.
Can you tell us a bit about your background? Your parents actually met at a pro surfing event in the ’80s, right?
My mom was born in Tokyo, and she didn’t really come from a surfing background. My grandma was actually a really good volleyball player, but my mom decided when she was about 16 that she wanted to move to the coast. She got a job as a waitress in Chōnan, in Japan, and started surfing there. As she got better, she started traveling and competing.
My dad has been a surfer his whole life. His parents are Irish, but he grew up in a little town outside of Cronulla along with his two brothers and two sisters. So he’s been surrounded by the ocean forever. Unlike mom, he doesn’t have much of a competitive side, so for him surfing was always just a hobby. He’s still a really good surfer; he just never pursued it as a professional career.
But yeah, they met because Mom was in Cronulla for a professional event in the ’80s, and they’ve been together since.
What was it like growing up and surfing in Cronulla?
They call it a “city beach,” but it’s not like the Bondi or anything. It’s a nice distance away from the mayhem. We have a really good variety of waves in Cronulla, from slabs to reefbreaks to beachbreaks, which is really great exposure if you want to become a professional surfer one day. It was a good practice ground growing up as a kid. I started on a boogie board at 5 or so and then dad got me surfing on his boards a few years after that. My parents didn’t push me to be pro or anything like that. I was actually really into soccer for a long time, but it was taking up every weekend, so I just went, “Nah, I think I’ll stick to surfing.”
During your ’QS bid, you worked at a surf shop between events, and you also coached and taught surf lessons. Was that out of financial necessity or something you just enjoyed doing?
A bit of both. It was really grounding for me to go, “OK, I don’t want to do work in a surf shop or push kids into waves for the rest of my life.” Coming home between events to work, coach and sell surfboards got me even more inspired to go out and compete and be successful at it. It was definitely motivation for me to surf my best and see where that could take me.
Did you ever lose confidence in yourself? After remaining under the radar throughout your junior career, did you think maybe pro surfing just wasn’t in the cards?
To be honest, I didn’t even really have a junior career. There were flashes where I did OK, but I didn’t make a single World Junior Championship, and the last year I had on the junior series, I broke my leg trying an air at the start of the year and was out for the whole season. When I got healthy I was too old for the juniors and just decided to have a real dig at the ’QS.
My first year on the ’QS, I was just feeling my way through it and seeing what the judges thought of me. I chipped away at it, and then two years ago I ended up in ninth heading into Hawaii and almost qualified, which I wasn’t expecting at all. I didn’t end up qualifying that year, but it gave me a lot of confidence, because at that point I knew I had the talent. And then last year I went into it with the goal of getting on Tour and ended up winning the ’QS.
It seems like getting so close to qualifying can either help or hurt your confidence. For some people it’s heartbreaking to get that far and not qualify, and they never get close again. You’re obviously not one of those people.
Going into Hawaii in 2015 I had a few people saying to me, “Man, you don’t want to be that guy that nearly qualifies and then never gets close again,” and it got in my head. But during my whole career, I’ve always just wanted to improve my surfing, and I’ve always focused more on that than anything else. The results themselves weren’t the biggest thing for me, and that outlook helped me immensely. I haven’t had the most amazing results, but I feel like I’ve improved every year and that’s ended up impacting how well I do in events.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received in terms of surfing and competing?
When I was younger, before every heat my dad would say, “Connor, just go long.” It meant to take my time. To draw out turns. To not rush. That’s stuck with me my entire life. Now if I take off on a wave and I feel like I’m rushing, or if I’m a bit flustered in a heat, I’ll remember Dad’s voice in my head — “Go long” — and everything falls back into rhythm.
Speaking of big accomplishments, you’re sitting at 10th in the rankings with three events to go. How important is winning Rookie of the Year to you?
It’s a big deal. You only get one shot at that, and I feel like this year has more talented rookies than ever, so to stand out among these guys would be a massive confidence booster for me. At the start of the year everyone was talking about Zeke [Lau], Ethan [Ewing], Leo [Fioravanti], Fred [Morais] … and then it was like, “Connor? Who’s that?” [Laughs.]
For you, that’s got to be the weirdest thing about arriving on Tour: Just dealing with the attention and the naysayers.
Yeah, until I qualified I never had any media attention at all, so I’m not used to that. And you realize there are people who love your surfing and people who hate your surfing, and you’ve just got to accept that and not let it get in your head too much. I try to just have a laugh at it all, but it does affect you in small ways. I used to be pretty loose with my Instagram, and a couple of months ago I was in the gym and this guy was trying and failing to do a box jump — a really high one, like the same height as me — and he was kind of acting like a dick. I thought it was funny, so I filmed him for a second and put it on my Instagram story, and straight away I had people calling me out and telling me it was disrespectful, and I realized I have to watch myself a bit more now. There are more people paying attention to me now and I want to be a good, positive influence. But last year nobody would have even noticed something like that. [Laughs.]
Do you ever get overwhelmed by the social media world? You don’t seem like the type to relish that kind of attention.
I’m not a massive fan of social media, and I never have been. But I get that it has a big impact, and there are a lot of people in my ear telling me I need to use it, so I try to stay on top of it. I think we all wish we could just shut it off sometimes, but I don’t get too overwhelmed by it. I’ve been reading more books to switch it up. You get so sucked into your phone that it’s really nice to take a break and open up a book. Every time I’m in the airport now I buy a new one.
So now that you’re on the Tour, and you’ve proven you belong there, what comes next? Where do you set the new goalposts?
The end goal is to win a world title, but it’s been a process getting to that headspace. At the start of this year I just wanted to get comfortable as quick as I could on Tour and re-qualify through the ’CT so I didn’t have to chase the ’QS. Then, after a few good results, I started thinking, “Why not try to crack the top 10?” Last year was exactly the same: At the start of the year I just wanted to qualify for the Tour, but halfway through the season, after winning Ballito, I decided I should try to win the whole thing.
Which you did, and what an incredible accomplishment that was. Now that you’re in this new chapter of your life on Tour, do you think much about where you were just a few years ago?
Yeah, for sure. I think after my surfing career it would be cool to go back to Cronulla and share the experiences I’ve had on Tour with the kids there and try to help and coach them. There’s a lot of knowledge I’ve gained and am still gaining, and I wish there would have been someone like that to help me when I was younger. It would be really cool to give back to the kids.
Considering you’ve been the underdog for much of your career, any guidance would probably mean a lot coming from you. If you could do it, that probably helps them believe that they can too.
Definitely. I’d love to help kids that aren’t necessarily the best or the most touted surfers their age, because I was exactly like that. I wasn’t the best kid, but it’s all about improving every day and listening to the people that want to help you. That’s what got me to where I am today.