Margate resident Tom O'Brien has been surfing since the 1970s.
The 51-year-old has riden some of the country's most famous wave breaks, including Trestles in California last June.
He has bounced back from two hip replacements to win several trophies in both Eastern Surfing Association and USA Surfing contests, including the Legends Longboard division at the ESA's season-ending Eastern Championships in August in Nags Head, N.C.
His worst wipeout, however, occurred in a water park.
A few weeks before winning the Eastern Championships title, O'Brien took a day trip to Camelbeach Mountain Waterpark in the Poconos and soon found himself riding artificial waves on a FlowRider.
"I was goofing around with a bunch of 14- and 15-year-olds," O'Brien said. "I was the only surfer there, so I was doing some tricks and stuff and teaching them how to ride. On my last time on it, I fell."
O'Brien walked out of the ride, trying his best to ignore the searing pain in his hip.
He passed a line of kids, delivering high-fives down the line on his way to meet his wife, Kathy, in the waiting area.
"Looks like you have quite a fan club," Kathy said.
Tom managed a small smile and sat down. When he tried to rise a few minutes later, the pain was worse and he couldn't put any weight on his leg.
His new fan club watched as Kathy pushed him out of the park in a wheelchair.
"That was the most embarrassing moment of my life," O'Brien said with a laugh.
O'Brien, a deputy chief in the Margate Fire Department, feared he had broken his hip and would need yet another replacement, but doctors diagnosed it as a pinched nerve and would heal with rest.
He stayed off it for about a month and a half, but didn't want to miss the ESA Eastern Championships. O'Brien's oldest daughter, Rachael (20), accompanied him to the contest and carried his boards and luggage from the house he was staying in in Nags Head to the contest at Jeanette's Pier.
If he was hurting, he didn't show it. O'Brien topped a talented field that included defending champion Glenn Tanner of North Carolina and local standout Joe Grottola, a Wildwood resident.
"The finals were held in 6- to 8-foot seas with a 30-mile-an-hour Northeast wind," O'Brien said. "It was pretty tough for us old guys, but it was fun. It was a victory at sea (a surfer's term used to describe rough conditions)."
By his estimate, O'Brien has won "six or seven" ESA titles, despite undergoing hip replacements in 2005 and 2010.
He took two years off from surfing after the last one, and got back out in the water just this year.
Both surgeries were on the same day, Oct. 5.
"When I got my first one done, the doctor said I had about five years left on my other one," O'Brien said. "And he was right on the money. And I feel great. Aside from that incident in the water park, I haven't felt any pain."
The one benefit from his second hip replacement was that it enabled him to develop his talent in another aspect of surfing. Because he was having trouble popping up on a surf board for a while, he focused his attention on learning standup paddleboarding.
That dedication paid off last June, when he won his age group at the USA Surfing Championships at Trestles in San Onofre Beach in San Diego County, Calif. He bested a loaded field that included runnerup Ian Cairns of Australia.
"(Surfing legend) Colin McPhillips was giving out the awards," O'Brien said. "When the announcer said 'Tom O'Brien, from Atlantic City, New Jersey,' McPhillips said, 'He's from where?' Everybody else was from California and Australia. It was pretty funny."
O'Brien is spending his fall and winter surfing local spots with Kathy and his daughters Rachael and Carla (13) and intends to compete in more ESA events next year.
If he goes to another water park, he won't be trying the FlowRider.
"No way," he said. "If I ever go again, I'll be at the bar."
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