Jamie O'Brien has made for himself in the world of professional surfing because he's doing things that nobody else is doing. He's a freesurfer, meaning he’s not chasing contest wins or world titles. He's out traveling the world and filming stunning video footage of surfing in epic locales that's capturing an audience worldwide.
O'Brien grew up near one of the most notorious waves on the planet, with a home in front of Pipeline, on the surf mecca of Oahu's North Shore. His dad was a lifeguard who had moved to Hawaii to surf, and who introduced his son to the sport at the young age of three.
"When I was younger, it was scary and intimidating living right by Pipeline," O'Brien says. "But it was still something I'd go to school and brag to my friends about."
He started competing in local surf contests when he was about six-years-old and as a teen and into his twenties, he had major success, with top results at Pipeline Masters, one of the most prestigious events on the World Tour. But somewhere along the way, the contests lost their appeal.
"The feeling of winning is pretty priceless," O'Brien says. "Competing was fun for a while, but that's all I did for 12 years, and at some point, it just wasn't fun anymore."
In 2004, O'Brien had a huge season: He got a wildcard entry into Pipeline Masters and won, becoming one of the event's youngest champions at age 21. He also produced his first surf movie, called Freak Show. He got a taste for filming and wanted more. So in 2005, he essentially gave up the contest scene. He still dabbled in contests when the moment struck, but he mainly focused on creating a new genre of professional surfing – freesurfing.
"I have fun filming and traveling and making memories that will last forever," he says. "That's where my head was at."
Jamie continued traveling and capturing his exploits on camera. He produced the follow-up 2008 surf film, Freak Side, then went on to star in the 2010 film Who is JOB?, which changed the face of surf movies by delivering the perfect freesurfing film, capturing some of the best waves around the world. The film won multiple awards at Surfer magazine's Surfer Awards.
Meanwhile, he'd still occasionally drop into major surf contests, like Pipeline Pro or Rip Curl Invitational, when the mood hit, yet he famously burned the Association of Professional Surfing's rulebook as a way of making a public statement. "It was something to show that I didn't care about results. I wanted to let the change be noted that in freesurfing, there are no rules," O'Brien says.
None of which is to say that O'Brien is not a competitive person. When he enters a contest like Pipeline Masters, he is there to win. "No matter what, you want to win," he says.
When Red Bull came to O'Brien in 2012 and said they were interested in a web video series, he decided to turn Who is JOB? into an ongoing saga, which quickly became one of the most popular shows on Red Bull TV.
In the series, O'Brien and his sidekick 'Poopies' adventure around the world, doing hilarious acts like surfing mud puddles, riving surfing, riding softtop surfboards at Jaws, and attempting 20-foot waves on a blow-up raft.
"It's documenting our lives and it's something fun that I took pride in, so that equaled a good result," O'Brien says. "We've got a really fun vibe and we're trying to bring out the inner kid in all of us."
When O'Brien asked his Instagram followers what he should do in season five of Who is JOB?, one fan suggested he light himself on fire.
"I was like, 'Whoa, that would be insane,'" he says. "So I went to Red Bull with the idea of, 'Hey, I want to get lit on fire and ride Teahupo'o', and they looked at me and were like, 'Do you really want to do this? You're joking, right?' Next thing you know, I'm in Los Angeles. lighting myself on fire."
It took a year of preparation and training, both on land and in water in California and Hawaii, but in July 2015, O'Brien and a team of nearly 25 – including camera crews, water and safety patrol, and a Hollywood stunt director – flew to Tahiti to let him tackle one of the world's largest waves while burning in flames.
The resulting footage garnered attention worldwide and was covered extensively in the media, while O'Brien was just happy to have achieved his goal and escaped unharmed.
"I might be in the water but let me tell you, that flame that was wrapping me was intense," O'Brien recalled. "It was a dream wave, and I was on fire. It was the biggest adrenaline rush of my life."