When you first meet Johnny O’Connor, it is hard to not be struck by his contagious smile and laid back demeanor. Never in a hurry, and rarely stressed or on edge, JOC is the first one to ask how you are doing and to light you up with a grin stretching ear to ear. Even when on the snow or in the street, he remains cool, focused, and sharp – qualities that directly influence his calculated and effortless style.
However, these qualities aren’t a product of recent maturity, for those who have known Johnny will share similar stories stretching back to his early days in upstate New York. JOC is a man wise beyond his years, and his approach to snowboarding remains professional, yet always fun and light hearted. One needs only to dig into the depths of YouTube to find fifteen-year-old Johnny cutting his teeth at Windells, long before it became ski-only.
His itch to progress has always been burning inside and is evidenced by his hammer heavy part in STRONGER, the Union Binding Company movie, even after a brutal slam which ultimately forced him to be sidelined until recently. If one thing is for sure, the snowboard world needs to watch out, Johnny O’Connor is back on board and is sure to have a bevy of tricks up his sleeves ready to be unleashed in one clip after the next. We’re glad you’re on the road to recovery, Johnny. Cheers to you, and another season of sliding on snow. — Owen Ringwall, Associate Editor
Read Johnny’s exclusive interview below, and watch the full movie here
Interview by Jens Heig, photography by Joel Fraser
The first shot in your part is you getting hurt.
Broke off. What was going through your mind when you hit the stairs?
From there it got shitty, real quick. I had one attempt before that where I went in the middle of the stairs. I remember saying out loud, “That was the scariest moment of my life.” I should have just learned my lesson right there and stopped while I was ahead. What happened initially was my worst fear of what could happen. Mid-session, I had a 10-minute break when I was talking to Scott [Stevens] pretty deeply about those feelings. He’s the best person to talk to if you’re in a stressful scenario. He’s always so positive and always has the best thing to say. When he was saying that it would have been totally cool to wrap up the whole session, that it doesn’t matter how much work was put into a spot, it’s better to move on. He didn’t direct me either way, but with the way my mind works, I always want to complete something if I’m close to accomplishing it. About three tries later is when I broke my leg. I remember laying there thinking to myself, “Yep, this is exactly what I set myself up for, now I have to pay the price.” Sometimes I just have to learn the hard way.
Did you know how serious it was in that moment?
I didn’t hear a snap, but I remember knowing that my leg was broken because of the excruciating pain I was in. I remember laying there immobile, not being able to move my leg, knowing it was broken. Brendan Gerard and Scott came over to take my board off, and I broke my buckle, so I remember being on the ground in pain, being filmed.
“No spot is worth your health.”
The slam broke your buckle?
Yeah, the slam did. Brendan had a screwdriver, hammering at my binding while I was sitting there. It sucked. I remember getting my boot untied and when I initially saw the big lump of skin sticking out and thinking, “Yup, she is broken.” Luckily we were only two miles away from the hospital I had surgery in. If you watch my part and see that back three hand drag I did, that was at the hospital. A little fun fact when watching the part.
It could have been so much worse. I’m glad I didn’t have to fly out anywhere. I could have cracked my head open, so I was grateful from the start.
What did sponsors say? What was the aftermath of the injury?
I was in the hospital that night, didn’t really reach out to anyone except for Brian Cook of ThirtyTwo. He had hit me up for something else, then I said, “Oh yeah, by the way, I broke my leg.” I didn’t reach out to anyone about it. The next day, the day I got surgery was my birthday, so I had a lot of people reaching out to me. It was that day or the day after when I started contacting the guys at CAPiTA and Union to inform them. But at that point, I did not want to even show them my x-ray. I was worried that their reaction would be, oh shit. He’s done. I’m so lucky to have sponsors that have my back in scenarios like this, a situation during a pretty crucial time in my career. They took it well. They are supporting me until I get back on my board, I just want to prove to them that I can recover from this and be stronger mentally and physically.
What did it do to your state of mind?
It definitely made me feel grateful for help, in general. In and out of snowboarding. Having a broken leg made me appreciate little things, like being able to breathe, not having a serious disease; it made me appreciate more about life. I had a lot of time to sit around. Before I was able to get into physical therapy, I would just miss running, and being able to fully take my energy out. I have yet to fully do that, seven and a half months later.
It puts everything in perspective.
Absolutely. No spot is worth your health.
It’s funny how the universe works, because you had that exact thought a few tries before it happened. That it was exactly what you didn’t want to do. Then, of course, that’s what happened.
My main worry was hitting my head. That’s always the thing that worries me the most. When I broke my leg, I remember thinking, thank God my head is ok. I remember the feeling that my upper body was fine. Leg, that will heal, head, ok. Thank God.
What were some of the high points of the year? Certain tricks? Any moments that stand out?
I really had a fun time in Kuopio, Finland. We heard that they got snow in Helsinki, so I flew out there with Phil [Jacques], Scotty, Skylar [Brent, cinematographer], and Joel Fraser [photographer]. We had a couple of days in Helsinki before the snow melted, then we drove four or five hours to Kuopio. That was a new area for us all. The snow was really good, and there was a lot of untouched territory. We all got to hit spots we were hyped on. That was a highlight. Being in Quebec is also fun, because we’re within driving distance to New Hampshire. We always have our own vehicles up there, feel more at home, more comfortable, and know the area pretty well. We had some good trips up there.
What has been the response for STRONGER so far?
Nothing but good things. Most people were pretty surprised by the production quality, we didn’t go crazy on promotion during the season, which I think is always a good idea. You’re not setting people’s expectations through the roof, then when it drops it’s that much more impactful and surprising. Once it did drop is when we really started blasting social. I was honestly blown away by how many people were reaching out and commenting on it, in all positive ways. I don’t think I saw one negative thing about it. Everyone did such an incredible job.
Who has your favorite part?
Kazu is probably my favorite snowboarder. His part is full of hype. The song, the style, the power he has in his snowboarding, it makes you want to go out and send things big. I love watching that guy ride. But I do love Dustin Craven’s part, Torstein’s, Phil’s part is incredible. Scott, I love his song and the spots that he hit. Watching Arthur and Guch [Bryan Iguchi] do some doubles action in the backcountry is awesome to see. Filming with Brisse and Anto [Chamberland] this season; it’s awesome to see those guys because they work so hard at what they do. Their dedication is inspiring.
It sounds like you just like the movie a lot.
I think you can be someone that just started snowboarding or a pro rider, and people will like it either way because the appeal is in the production quality, the talent, the songs.
Yeah dude. I agree. The diverse talent in the video and having shots of what snowboarding is. Taking pow turns, goofing around, to sending it off of insane things, it has it all.
What is your plan for the season? How are you feeling now?
Right now I am nearly eight months out from my injury. I’ve gone snowboarding twice. I wish I could say I’m feeling better than I am. I’ve worked hard towards physical therapy and staying healthy, but the reality is that my break was really bad. From the start, I knew that it was going to affect this coming season. So I braced for the worst, which would be cruising mellow all year, but aiming for 100%. Right now I’m about 80%. I’ve got the rod with two screws by the knee and two by the ankle. I just scheduled an operation to get the bottom two screws taken out of my leg, which has been causing some ankle pain. I assume that once I get those out, and the incisions heal, I should be able to have less pain when I put pressure on my leg. I’m hoping that it’s going to let me feel comfortable for all types of movement and impact.
Can you feel them?
Yeah, when I’m standing on one leg bending down, they push up against the front of my bone.
Is all the hardware permanent? Or will they pull everything out eventually?
Personally, I’m playing it by how I feel. I was planning on just getting the screws out and keeping the rod, but I might decide to get the rod taken out eventually. I’ve been reaching out to other people that had the same injury, and they keep their hardware in, so I’m just going about it without making a plan. I just want to take out the things that hurt. I’ll probably end up keeping the rod in.
Do you watch your old parts?
No, I don’t. I watched my Roll Call part once after Leonard Cohen died, just to listen to the song. But I haven’t seen my CAPiTA part or my Holy Smokes part in a long time. I usually watch them a lot before they’re released, just to study them. But afterwards, I probably have things cemented in my head so much that I don’t need to watch them.
Do you feel uncomfortable watching them? Or are you just over it and ready to move on?
I get uncomfortable watching my parts in front of people. At premieres, I’ll walk out of a theater or won’t pay attention. I don’t really understand it I guess, but I like to hear more reactions and hear what other people think, rather than just watching it. That helps me understand what people are interested in. I don’t like being around it so I can get an idea of what people truly like rather than reacting to it just because I’m there.
How do you take feedback?
I’m always very appreciative of compliments. People have told me that sometimes I shut myself down too much too. It’s not a very polite thing to do if someone is complimenting you and you brush it off, like it wasn’t sick. Most of the time I’m not satisfied with my video parts. I probably have three to maybe five shots a season that I’m truly hyped on, on everything else I watch, I just think about how I could have done it better. Or I might not want a clip in my part to begin with, then I’ll watch it in my part and I’ll think it came out pretty good. Just ask Skylar Brent, you’ll never hear him say that I’m hyped on a shot.
What it’s like filming with Scott then? He has a vision for how he wants a trick to look, and takes however many tries to get something. So what’s it like with you guys sharing the same mentality towards things?
It’s so motivational. You never feel like you’re wasting one another’s time. We’re always pushing each other to get the shot that we want, because we both know that we strive for perfection. We know that what we’re trying to do is to the best of our abilities, even if that means doing something ten times over, or doing it a thousand times to get that one land. We’re very patient with each other and open minded. Scott is such an incredible person to film with, in that sense.
Are you satisfied with this part?
I received better feedback than I ever imagined. I’m so hyped to hear that people like it. I remember thinking that it was definitely going to be one of my weaker parts, then I’ve had people tell me that it’s their favorite part. I don’t even know what people like these days! I’m just so happy that people like it. That’s what matters to me the most.
Was it even more stressful, or were you tripping out on it more because of your injury, and had that time to think through everything? Did that weight on you as well?
When I was in recovery mode, still unable to do anything at all, I received my timeline and I remember watching it over and over… Maybe my injury had something to do with it, but I think I could have done better. But I’m happy with it, because it was a really bad snow season and we were filming in areas that we’ve filmed in plenty of times before. We did the most with what we had. Understanding that made me not critique it as much.
Do you have any closing thoughts?
I really want to send a very genuine thanks to everyone who is my friend, to everyone that has supported my snowboarding. Snowboarding has created the ultimate happiness in my life. I am so grateful for every single person, every single day on a board with all of my friends. I really look forward to getting back out and having a blast with everyone. I’m just so grateful for where I am in snowboarding, because I would not be here without my friends, the people that have gone through all of these trips with me. In both bad times and good times, they’ve had my back. So I just have so much love for everyone that I’ve come across in this lifetime.