You'll like the way he surfs, we guarantee it. Video: Billy Lee Pope and Lachlan McKinnon | Photos: WSL
Australia's Next Hot Topic Stars In: "I'm Practically A Poor Man's Ethan Ewing"
Movie and a chat with Liam O'Brien.
The Vans Triple Crown starts in just one week, meaning that 100 CT-hopefuls are currently congregating on Oahu's North Shore—training, readying their equipment, and preparing for events that will either usher them onto surfing's elite tour or kick them square in the nuts.
Liam O'Brien, a 20-year-old from Burleigh Heads, Australia, would prefer not to have his man-berries smashed, but he recognizes that it's an occupational hazard of QS surfers, and seeing as how this is Liam's first year on the Prime circuit, he was more or less expecting it coming into the 2019 season.
Last year, Liam won three QS 1,000 events across Indo and Australia—"a couple little flukes,” as Liam would describe it—but you can’t fluke three times in one year.
This season, Liam started slow but soared up the rankings with a second-place finish in the US Open, adding an 8,000-pound elephant to his scoreline.
Following a few decent results in Europe and Japan, Liam now finds himself in 13th place on the QS, just one decent result away from a virgin CT berth. But with Sunset and Haleiwa looming, one wonders how our protagonist will fare in the year's most difficult QS events.
First watch Liam's new video above, then scroll into an interview with Australia's clever CT-hopeful.
"I've been to Hawaii a fair bit," Liam explains in our chat, "but last year was my first time in the Triple Crown."
Liam made the second and third rounds, respectively, at Sunset and Haleiwa in 2018. He'll need at least a quarterfinal finish this year if he wants to qualify.
I asked Liam how he felt about potentially being on the CT next year.
“I never expected to be here at the end of the year. Obviously I wanted to, but this is my first year doing all the 10,000 events, so I was looking at it more as a learning experience than a genuine crack at qualifying. But then I got second at the US Open and made a few heats elsewhere, and here I am."
As much as we'd like to encourage Liam, the fact remains that the last two events of the season are the most difficult on the entire QS schedule. Not only are Haleiwa and Sunset especially complex lineups to negotiate, but the heat draws are also filled with high-ranking CTers who have to fulfill their yearly QS quota and a bunch of battlers who see these events their last chance to qualify. It's a gauntlet out there.
I didn't heft all this negativity on Liam but, rather asked him how these waves suited his surfing.
“I really like the waves, Haleiwa and Sunset,” he said, “but surfing heats out there is a different story. I won’t say that they’re places I’m really confident at and have down to a T.”
Liam recently competed in the HIC Pro—a QS 3,000 event at Sunset Beach that acts both as a funnel for local surfers to enter the Triple Crown and a warm-up run for the already-qualified QS surfers. Liam made one heat at that event and had a scoring average of 10.7 points. I asked how he could improve upon those numbers for the Vans World Cup.
“I gotta figure out how to pick a good wave out there,” Liam laughs. “I seem to end up on suss waves all the time. And at Sunset, you only really get four or five waves in your heat, so you have to pick the eyes out of it. I also have to figure out how to hit the lip and not fall off [laughs].”
In fairness, that goes for 99.7% of people who have ever attempted to surf Sunset.
I next asked Liam to imagine the scenario in which everything goes to plan in Hawaii, and he ends up securing a spot on the 2020 Tour. Would he feel prepared, mentally and physically, to compete against the top-34?
“To be honest, probably not,” Liam laughed. “I don’t know, it’s hard one. I definitely would like to be there one day, but if I actually qualified, I feel like I’d still have some work to do. I’m not gonna say like, ‘Yeah I’m ripping, I’m gonna beat those guys,’ but I think I could give it a reasonable go.”
This naturally led to comparisons with Ethan Ewing—another young Aussie, also sponsored by Billabong, who, like Liam, has a technically perfect approach to waveriding. Liam confirms that he's been compared to Ethan in the past and that it's probably because they live nearby [Ethan lives on North Stradbroke island, roughly 3 hours north of Burleigh via car and ferry].
“Ethan’s such a quintessential polished surfer. He’s so good," Liam says. "I’m almost like a poor man’s version of him [laughs].”
Ethan is just one year older than Liam, so due to their geographic proximity and likeness in age, the two boys often competed together as kids.
“He pretty much wiped the floor with me our whole Junior career," Liam laughs. "It was pretty wild when he qualified so young, but it also made sense. Like, yeah, that's about right [laughs].”
I agreed, but raised that counterpoint that Ethan struggled badly in his rookie season, hence the fact he's no longer on Tour. I asked Liam if it was mental mistakes that caused Ethan's slew of losses or if his surfing, as good as it might have been, just wasn't ready to compete with the men.
"I couldn’t comment with any certainty, but if I had to guess, it would have been a mental hurdle for Ethan rather than physical," Liam deduced. "His surfing is definitely good enough to compete on that level. It’s just that once the losses start piling up, I can see how it would be difficult to dig yourself out of that hole.”
Liam's right, of course. On top of the psychological burden that inflicts constantly-losing athletes, the truth is that if you fail to get out of the gates hot on the CT, you're kinda screwed for the rest of the season, seeding-wise.
In his first-ever CT heat, Ethan logged a nine-point ride but failed to secure a solid back-up, leading to a second Round loss at Snapper, then Bells, then Margarets, etc., which continued to diminish his seed and extend the loop of negative reinforcement. Ethan eventually fell off tour ranked number 34.
In the following CT season, Ethan's junior sparring partner, Griffin Colapinto (Ethan and Griff went 1&2 at the 2016 World Junior Champs), made the semis of his first CT event, improving the Californian's ranking and putting him on a path to relative CT success (Griff requalified that year, finishing 18th).
In other words, if Ethan had just backed up that nine and had a decent finish at Snapper, he might have had a completely different year. So, mental trumps physical and a little luck always helps.
But don't worry Liam, you've got a few Hawaiian heats to make before you can stress over Snapper!