Pro surfer Connor O’Leary grew up riding the waves in Australia, but has always felt a strong connection to Japan.
His mother, Akemi, is Japanese, and he also speaks the language.
O’Leary, 27, was born in Australia and is a proud Australian, but his Japanese heritage is an equally important part of his identity. Which is why this year he decided to make it a more visible part of who he is as a surfer by adding the Japanese flag to the Australian one that already adorns his uniform, as a way to represent both nations this year on the World Surf League (WSL) Championship Tour.
“It’s amazing to have the opportunity to be able to represent two countries and have the multiculturalism that I have had for my whole life,” O’Leary told The Japan Times. “I think with a bit of maturity, I came to a point where I really felt like it was the right time to recognize my Japanese heritage.”
O’Leary said representing both countries was an idea he’d had for a while, but never had serious discussions about. He got the push he needed from his wife, who “out of the blue” told him to give it a shot.
“I took it to the WSL, and they were really positive and supportive about the whole thing,” he said.
O’Leary began surfing at a young age, following in the footsteps of his mother, who was a pro, and his father, who was an avid surfer as well.
He was the WSL’s Qualifying Series champion in 2016 and the Championship Tour Rookie of the Year in 2017. He had a difficult 2018 season, but bounced back to win a pair of events in the Qualifying Series in 2019 and is back on the Championship Tour this year.
Japan has always been a home away from home for O’Leary. Growing up, he traveled to Japan with his mother nearly every year and usually spent around two months in the country — mainly around Kunitachi, Tokyo, where his grandparents live. He also made treks to the Shonan region in Kanagawa Prefecture and was able to surf there on occasion.
Those trips to Japan helped O’ Leary maintain a strong connection to his Japanese heritage.
“It’s very instilled in me that a big part of me is Japanese,” he said.
He was also able to hone his language skills.
“When I was a kid growing up, my mom couldn’t speak too much English,” he said. “So I actually learned Japanese before I learned English. Just because of mom’s English barrier, she didn’t speak too much English back in the day. So to be able to go back to Japan and remind myself of the language and the culture every year really helped me keep up with the way I spoke Japanese, and also learning English every time I came back to Australia.”
Surfing with a Japanese flag on his uniform is personal for O’Leary and is as natural as having the Australian flag there.
Of course, the connection starts with his mother, who also passed down her love of surfing.
Akemi Karasawa (now O’Leary), didn’t grow up near the sea. Around age 20, however, she moved to the Shonan region. She settled into a life there, near the ocean, working part time at a yakiniku (grilled meat) restaurant and soon developed a love of surfing.
She eventually improved to the point where she could surf competitively. In 1985, she was the Japan Pro Surfing Association’s Grand Champ. In 1992, she was chosen as the Surfin Life female Surfer of the Year.
She eventually moved to Australia and met her husband, Finbar, at a competition. In 1993, the couple welcomed their son into the world.
They didn’t waste any time introducing him to the water. As a child, O’Leary accompanied his parents on surfing trips, first staying around the shore and eventually going out into the water as he got older.
“I think just being able to experience the ocean at such a young age and being able to be as comfortable as I could in such a raw environment like the ocean is, I’m very fortunate to have been able to experience that from a very young age,” he said.
O’Leary was also able to watch his mother compete and recalls being completely in awe of her during one event in Japan.
“I think I was about 8 or 9 at the time,” he said. “She was doing so well in the heats and she ended up winning the event. I think at that point in time, I was like ‘Wow, my mom surfs really well.’
“I feel like women’s surfing back then wasn’t nearly as recognized as what it is now. To be fortunate enough to have not one parent that surfed but both, and it wasn’t my dad that was the better surfer, it was my mom, was a really, really, cool feeling. Definitely very inspirational for me to start my career and give me the drive and dedication to get to that stage where my mom was.”
O’Leary says his mother’s personality — “my mom is a very competitive woman” — has rubbed off on him and that being the son of two surfers has aided his career.
“It’s a very analytical sport, so it’s awesome to have my parents and be able to bounce ideas off my parents because they know surfing and they’ve done it for so long,” he said.
Like his mother, O’Leary has shown great skill in the water. While he’s already had some success in his career, he’s focused on reaching a personal milestone this year — while flying both the Australian flag and Japan’s Hinomaru.
“I think my goal for this year is to definitely win a World Championship Tour event,” he said. “That’s probably my main goal for now. I got second a few years ago, so to be able to win one would definitely be the cherry on top for this year.”
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