• James O'Leary

A Time for Everything: My Adventures in Boardsports, Science, and Military Life



After moving numerous times with the military, my family lucked out and landed in the paradise of Hawaii, where I took up surfing. I’ve now surfed in Hawaii, Spain, Japan, Vietnam, and South Korea, though I'll admit I've never surfed waves more than 15 ft.


Something interesting about me is that unlike the stereotypical surfer, I care about my education; in fact I'm sort of a STEM nerd. For example, I presented a research paper I wrote and experiment I conducted titled Effect of Fin Shape on the Performance of a Surfboard at the National Junior Science and Humanities Symposium.


The risks involved in paddling waves might seem immense to the casual observer, but are nothing compared to those involved in other sports I love, like skateboarding or snowboarding in between trees off-piste. Thus, the common perception among many is that practicing extreme sports is reckless, and those of us who do it don't care about our futures; we're kind of looked down upon by the more educated population.


However, I'd like to point out that there is risk in everything, and after a point, risk becomes negligible. For example, car crashes happen all the time, but driving is a risk that most Americans are willing to take. When people reach a certain skill level in an extreme sport, they have enough control to not worry about crashing or falling or other perilous mishaps, as there is a low probability of risk. Training oneself in order to minimize risk is necessary in order to improve in any extreme sport.


Exposure to seemingly dangerous situations that are actually low risk, taking into account one’s abilities, is exciting and fun, yet relatively safe. It only works, though, if you know your limits and do not overestimate your abilities. Unfortunately, the reliability of one’s evaluation of risk depends upon realistic and accurate knowledge of one’s capabilities. Various risk evaluation methods are commonly used by insurance companies, investors, and the FDA. Athletes who practice extreme sports often unconsciously apply these methods in order to prevent injury.


When I moved to Japan in 9th grade, I realized that while surfing and snowboarding are seen as cool and all, they can kind of ruin your life if you're not living near the beach or mountains. It's kind of lonely when everyone else is playing football, basketball, soccer, or another ball-sport, and I can't really participate; up until then, I had basically stayed away from those sports. When I was in Hawaii, I could surf three times a week, and surfing is like infinitely more pleasurable and satisfying than any ball-sport will ever be. I had been spoiled in Hawaii with surfing, and in Germany with snowboarding in the alps, but with nowhere within two hours of Yokota Air Base, Japan to practice these sports, I had nothing better to do with my time but dive into the world of academics.


I figured there were two options for me, become a pro-surfer or snowboarder and forget about my education, or forget about the sports I love and just grind away at school. As my chances of succeeding in the former route were very slim, I choose the latter option. I figured that when I hung out with the intellectuals, it was best to keep my surfing and snowboard a secret. I almost felt like a CIA agent, pretending to love track and cross country as a sports alibi. It wasn't until my sophomore year that I realized that this was fallacious reasoning.


That summer, I woke up at 4 a.m. to take a web conference course on biochemical engineering from Harvard. But during the last week of this week of this course, we were on a vacation in Bali, so I was able to wake up before anyone else, do my class, and then go surf. You definitely could call me a morning person, as I have no problem waking up early as long as there's a good reason(surfing and Harvard are both good reasons).


The following school year, my junior year, I completed a year long research project and paper titled: Effect of Fin Shape on the Performance of a Surfboard. Although I spent hundreds of hours on this, I didn't really honestly think I deserved to win anything for it, but I got second place at the pacific regional Junior Science and Humanities Symposium, and advanced on to Nationals (where obviously I had no chance, I mean I didn't help cure cancer or anything LOL). This experience reaffirmed a truth: With God, anything is possible. I never thought of myself as someone who would go to Harvard (even just for summer school), or win money for research on something as superfluous as surfing! Who knows? I may yet snowboard on the Freeride World Tour while at the same time pursuing an engineering degree.



As I was snowboarding through three-foot-deep powder that winter, I just realized how good I had it. I mean this whole military life wasn't so bad, was it? School was easy, and though I didn't have many friends, it didn't really matter at the same time. Even that started to change at the end of junior year, but by then it was too late to make real friends, because I was just about to move to South Korea and start a new school.


Everyone in Japan has some sort of horrible perception of South Korea, because of old war pains, but our first summer there was nice. Jeju and Gangwon-do even had some good surf! More importantly however, I started some great new friendships, at first through Club Beyond, and then through school. For some reason, I mostly befriended juniors and sophomores, but who cares? I was riding a wave of confidence, as this was a new school and nobody knew anything about me. If I screw things up, I'm only here till I graduate. At Sir Rod's I break-danced, an obscure talent I picked up while trying to attempt snowboard tricks without a snowboard (long story). Then there was Vida, where I had a great faith-boosting weekend, and spent quality time with friends.


Now, let me stop there. I had been deprived of real friends for almost 3 years (since Germany), so spending time with friends was special to me. I would trade these friendships in for being unable to surf or snowboard any day. Besides, I could still surfskate (skateboard specifically designed to simulate surfing).


Now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, I've only been able to hang out with friends a couple times. 'Tis the season for studying hard again for AP Calculus and AP Physics. It also turns out to be the season for surfskate carving down massive hills, and mountain biking so hard I have two flat tires in one week!


The military is really good at throwing curve-balls at us, but as long as we play along, it can be a grand adventure. I've realized there is a time for everything: a time to surf, a time to study, a time to spend with friends, a time to snowboard, a time to spend with family, a time to mountain bike, a time to break-dance, and so on...


If we accept God's plan (sometimes carried out through the military), we can bloom where we are planted by enjoying each different time of our lives, and in all things we should give him the glory.


"There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance..." Eccl. 3:1-4 NIV



#personalstories #japan #sports #hobbies #asia #pacific

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