Liam O'Brien has a knack for flying under the radar. The Gold Coast, Australia-raised natural footer has been hovering on the fringes of the Championship Tour bubble, threatening to make the jump to surfing's elite realm for a couple of seasons.
Despite a solid standing heading into the 2019 Triple Crown, he did not qualify for the 2020 Championship Tour. Instead, he committed himself to amass a hard drive's worth of footage for his 2020 edit, ‘Nadir Nadir' which saw the Australian make great use of his time on the North Shore at Off The Wall, fluttering through seemingly-unmakeable bombs and weaving through a season of Cyclone swells at home.
Fast-forward to 2021 and he secured a replacement spot into the Rip Curl Rottnest Search presented by Corona where he caused the biggest upset of the event when he eliminated Filipe Toledo in the Round of 32. He was eventually stopped by a rampaging Morgan Cibilic in the Semifinals, but now had everyone's attention.
"There was so much going on in that event -- it was a bit of a roller coaster of emotions, he says. "It was my first time at a CT so I was just soaking it all in and taking as much from it as I could and to surf that many heats was a massive benefit to me."
The third-place finish showed his competitive prowess fostered by coach Jay ‘Bottle' Thompson, a Burleigh Heads icon, and CT veteran in his own right who quietly served as a guide for O'Brien, Cibilic, and South African Matthew McGillivray last season.
Now, having begun competing in his first event on the Challenger Series at the US Open of Surfing Huntington Beach presented by Shiseido, the Australian is looking to find a permanent spot on the CT and join the ranks of Gold Coast surfers that have made the jump to the elite level.
"I'm just sort of taking it day by day at the moment and just surfing and not trying to get too far ahead of myself," he tells the WSL. "That's always a pretty big challenge on the QS and in any competition, really, it's just not getting ahead of yourself and not getting carried away by what other people are doing in the free surfs. You know, just going about your business and going through the processes and doing the best you can when the time comes."
O'Brien is good friends with Morgan Cibilic who came from nowhere in 2021 to contend for a World Title in his Rookie Year. He says watching Cibilic, whom he once traveled with on the QS, compete for a World Title has fired him up and shown that anything is possible.
"It's pretty unbelievable to see the year Morgs has had. We were all kind of at the same level at one point, and then he just rocketed off on his own trajectory and it's been really cool to watch him do that. It's really cool to see and it definitely gives people like myself a bit of confidence that it is actually possible."
"Obviously, he's improved out of sight as well and I've still got a lot of improving to do. But yeah, to see him make it all the way from someone who was not really wanting to even continue competing to someone who's challenging for a world title is pretty phenomenal. It definitely gives you a bit of an insight into how you can do it -- and just the fact that you can do it.
Whether Burleigh Heads Boardriders build a statue in his honor remains to be seen. However, if the soft-spoken Australian makes a jump from Challenger Series to the CT he'll join the ranks of Gold Coast world champs Mick Fanning and Joel Parkinson before him, and rest assured will give it a good crack.
"The big lesson was that like Morgan you don't have to change the way you do things when you got onto that next level. You just have to do things your way -- the best that you can -- and going forward that will be what I'll try and continue doing."