A week after NBA legend Michael Jordan celebrated his 50th birthday, Johnny O’Hara hailed his own half-century mark by marching in the opening ceremonies of the second annual International Surfing Association World Stand Up Paddle and Paddleboard Championship in Peru.
But unlike Jordan, who played in his last professional basketball game a decade ago, O’Hara is far from retired.
A Gloucester native now living in the city’s Magnolia section, and who turned 50 in December, O’Hara is competing as a member of the four-person Irish national team in at least three of the four championship disciplines, often against participants nearly half his age. Because of the withdrawal of the United States national team, O’Hara will also be the only American among about 150 competitors from 23 countries taking part in the event, which began last weekend and wraps up Saturday in Lima’s Miraflores district.
“Being selected to this team and competing in this is like a dream come true, a lifelong dream,” O’Hara said by phone earlier this month from his training base in Puerto Rico. “When the Olympics are on, I’m an Olympic freak. I can watch the thing 24 hours a day. So this is a realization of a lifelong dream of competing in an Olympic-style event. And especially competing for Ireland, competing for the motherland, and for my father, who has passed away.”
O’Hara’s participation in the world championships is the latest chapter in a lifetime of rowing, starting with lobster boat dinghies and Grand Banks dories and then racing 12-man seine boats in Gloucester’s annual St. Peter’s Fiesta.
But he’s only been paddle-board racing for two years. O’Hara credits friends Mike Brown and Christian del Rosario with “dragging me to my first race, kicking and screaming” in 2011, roughly four years after he tried stand up paddling, in which a surfboard-like platform and a long paddle are used in a cross between canoeing and surfing.
“I hadn’t competed since college,” said O’Hara. “I was 48. I told Mike, ‘I’m done competing.’ And he said, all right, let’s just go this one time. That was 2011, and I won $3,500 for the season.”
Clearly, the racing bug bit O’Hara again. Last year, he had first-place finishes at the Harbor Island race in North Carolina, and the Paddle 4 Humanity race in New York; third place in the Paddle Royal in Puerto Rico; and third place overall in the Atlantic Paddle Boarding Association’s “Paddle Battle” series, which he won in 2011. He’s also competed twice in the Battle of the Paddle in California, the “Super Bowl of paddling,” he said.
At the world championships in Peru, O’Hara is scheduled to compete in three stand up paddling, or SUP, disciplines, including the 11-mile marathon, the 3.5-mile technical race (which includes a LeMans-style sprint off and onto the beach), and stand-up surfing.
Since his grandfather, Patrick O’Hara, emigrated from County Sligo on the Emerald Isle, O’Hara always has had an Irish passport (his father, James W. O’Hara, was a longtime parole and probation officer in Boston). However, O’Hara went a step further, acquiring a dual citizenship in Ireland in 1988.
“Other than a couple of distant relatives in New York, my only living relatives on my father’s side are still in County Sligo,” he said. “I’m sure they think I’m just another crazy Yank, you know? They’re country farmers. But they’re super excited about it.”
The connection is important. David O’Hara (no relation), with the nonprofit SUPforAll in County Sligo, was instrumental in recruiting O’Hara to round out the four-person Irish team, joining Finn Mullen, Paul Byrne, and Katie McAnena.
“At 50 years old, to have this opportunity is really nothing less than a miracle. I sincerely mean that. It was divine intervention,” said Johnny O’Hara. “It’s something I saw last year on the Internet. I told myself, I’m going to find a way to get on this Irish team. I tried, and they were all receptive. Then it disappeared, and I put it out of the back of my head. Then, all sudden, I got an e-mail out of the blue in mid-December, saying it was all systems go.”
David O’Hara, in an e-mail, said he learned in December that the Irish team was incomplete, especially in the distance disciplines, and contacted O’Hara.
“This is the pinnacle, this is the peak, of my athletic career,” said Johnny O’Hara.
Unlike well-financed teams from Australia and New Zealand, Ireland’s squad, and the majority of the other competitors in Peru, are self-funded. A painting contractor by trade, O’Hara does have some sponsors to help defray those costs, including
Pioneers Board Shop in Hampton, N.H.
O’Hara acknowledged his age is a factor, including from a curiosity standpoint, but refused to use it as an excuse. Even his daughter Jelisa, a student at Santa Clara University in California, “and her buddies think it’s pretty amazing and pretty humorous that old Dad is going to be racing on the big screen,” said O’Hara.
“There’s still guys in the Battle of the Paddle that are still placing in the top 20, and they’re in their late 30s to early 50s,” he said. “But there aren’t many. I’ll be the oldest guy in this event. You’ll have guys in their early 40s who are still very competitive, but once you get up to my age and above, it’s tougher.”
O’Hara said he’d like to keep racing for another five years or so, but then, contemplating the world championships, added with a laugh: “Maybe the night this is over, that’ll be it. I might have a couple of pints, and call it a day.”
Brion O’Connor can be reached at email@example.com.