When we last checked in with Connor O'Leary in July, he had recently won the Ballito Pro and just finished a shift at the MOB Surf Store in his hometown of Cronulla. It was a safe bet to say he was the only contest winner in 2017 who was also moonlighting as surf shop assistant.
The son of an Irish born father and Japanese surfing champion mother, O'Leary has lived in Cronulla all his life. He explained that he was using the time in the shop to connect with the close knit local community, rather than for the paycheck.
Luckily his day job has continued to pay the bills. That Ballito win solidified his place in the top 10 qualifying places, but he was far from safe. Having missed the cut in 2015 by a just a few heats, he was taking nothing for granted heading to Oahu.
A couple years ago I was lucky enough to be under Stu Kennedy's wing. Now I pretty much do every QS with him, so I imagine we'll be doing the Tour together next year.
O'Leary however put all doubts to rest with a solid display of backhand surfing at the Hawaiian Pro, where he made the Semifinals and finished with a 5th. The 5,300 points he netted with that result clinched him a spot in the QS Top 10, no matter what happened at the Vans World Cup of Surfing. It also vaulted the 23-year-old to the top of the QS rankings.
Though he lost early at Sunset, O'Leary's lead proved large enough to clinch the Qualifying Series title, giving him a better seed for 2017, and putting him in an elite club of recent QS winners that include Felipe Toledo, Julian Wilson and John John Florence.
"At the start of the year it wasn't like my goal was to win the QS," O'Leary said sitting on the beach at Sunset. "It was just to qualify, but I think at about three-quarters of the way through the year, I was in the Top 10 and then my end of year goal pretty much became to win the QS, which seemed achievable."
Back in July, O'Leary was inspired by his local rugby league team, the Cronulla Sharks, who were then in the middle of a long winning streak. "They've never won the competition before, so this year could be their year," he said. "If the Sharkies win the Premiership and I qualify for the CT, well, that would be the best year ever."
In October his Sharks did win the premiership, the first in their 50-year history. With O'Leary now guaranteed his place on the CT, the Cronulla faithful have another reason to cheer on a hometown hero. Best year ever? Without doubt.
O'Leary believes he has a good travel partner for next year. "A couple years ago I was lucky enough to be under Stu Kennedy's wing. Now I pretty much do every QS with him, so I imagine we'll be doing the Tour together next year. It should be a fun!"