Physical therapist and prone paddleboarder Donna Jo O’Brien is in
it for the long run.
Donna Jo “DJ” O’Brien knows that sometimes the best medicine
is as simple as fresh air or the ocean. A pediatric physical therapist
O’Brien works with children with disabilities, and experience has
taught her that the great outdoors offers more benefits than just a change
of scenery. It’s a good thing, then, that she loves the ocean.
When O’Brien isn’t working with children, she’s prone
paddleboarding locally or in Hawaii and even Denmark, where she competed
in the International Surfing Association’s World Paddleboard Championships
as a member of Paddleboard Team USA in 2017.
Pulse found her on dry land long enough to ask a few questions.
How did you start prone paddleboarding?
Donna Jo O’Brien: I’ve always been active and I’ve always had a love for the
water, but I didn’t start surfing until I was in my later 20s and
early 30s. I started open-ocean swimming after I had my first daughter.
I did that for a couple of years, and then I wanted to do a longer race.
My coach told me a longer swim was a bad idea, so I signed up for a longer
prone paddleboard race. My very first time prone paddleboarding was a
3-mile race, and I just loved it. It felt so good, and being on the ocean
is just amazing.
So you immediately started competing in prone paddleboarding?
DO: I have a competitive spirit in me; I push myself. It’s completely
my passion to be out there on the water—I just don’t get tired
of it. This is my 19th season as a paddleboarder; I started when I was 34 years old. In the beginning
I just wanted to complete the Catalina Classic. That’s a 32-mile
race from Isthmus Cove on Catalina to the Manhattan Beach Pier. Now I’ve
paddled it 11 times, and I’ve won twice—the second time last
year when I was 52 years old [in Women’s Stock, Division I, with
a time of 6:47:35]. I like knowing that as I’m getting older, I’m
still able to do this. It doesn’t matter how old you are on the water.
How different is swimming from prone paddleboarding?
DO: If you have a swim background, you will probably be a good paddleboarder.
Once you get on the board and you get the balance, it’s the same
motion with the arms. You can also get on your knees and use both hands
to power stroke.
Is prone paddleboarding a good way to stay fit?
DO: What people don’t understand is how much your whole body is involved.
There’s a lot of balancing, so it’s really a whole-body sport.
There’s a lot of core work: abdominal muscles, back and hips. Because
I’ve been so active, I had back problems. But prone paddleboarding
has strengthened my core so much, that’s almost completely disappeared.
It’s great mentally too. Everything’s better after you paddle.
Is there an active prone paddleboarding community in Los Angeles?
DO: It’s a small community, but I’d like to see it grow. I think
people are a little nervous of the ocean, but I could teach anybody to
paddle—I’ve even taken my mom out. I started the South Bay
Mermaids, a women’s paddleboarding club, in 2006. We’re always
learning from each other. Right now we have about 15 members; not all
of them race. Over the years the number ebbs and flows. For me now it’s
not so much about the winning—it’s about inspiring the girls
to get out, inspiring women my age to get out.
Buying a paddleboard is pretty expensive, and there was no place in the
area to rent paddleboards. So recently my partner and I started Oceans
Prone Paddle. We rent prone paddleboards—the first to do so in the
area—and give lessons and coach.
What made you decide to become a pediatric physical therapist?
DO: I read a story when I was about 12 about a little girl who got a brain
injury, and that really stuck with me. From that point on, all I wanted
to do was help children—help them walk again. I kept asking my mother,
“How can I do that? Who does that?” And it’s physical
therapists. Physical therapy is such an amazing career because you can
do so many different things.
How does being in the water help children in physical therapy?
DO: There are so many properties of the water that I find attractive for physical
therapy. It helps with so many things. Balance, for example, and the hydrostatic
pressure helps kids develop their breathing. Just being in water helps
their respiratory muscles.
Most of the children I work with are born with a disability, so they’re
not rehabbing … they’re learning. I feel lucky to be able
to work with them. In the beginning it’s just about “Are we
having fun?” As kids get older it’s not as easy to manage
working in a gym situation. Outdoor work—in the water, hiking or
practicing sports activities—is more comfortable for them and gives
them a chance to be outside.
Right now I’m in the process of starting my own recreational therapy
business, working with kids outdoors, especially aquatics—surfing
with kids who have disabilities, also pool therapy. I’m hoping to
expand on that, and I’m working with the South Bay United Water
Polo Club to start a special needs water polo program.
How do you train for a prone paddleboard race?
DO: We do early-morning sprint intervals of 4 to 6 miles and longer paddles
on the weekends to help with speed and endurance. When I’m training
for a race, I plan out distances weekly and taper down as the race gets
closer. I’m signed up for a Molokai-to-Oahu race in July that’s
32 miles [the Molokai 2 Oahu Paddleboard World Championships;
molokai2oahu.com]. That’s a downwind race—there are lots of waves, lots of
wind—so here I train in the afternoon to replicate those conditions.
What’s your favorite place to paddleboard?
DJ: Well, if you mean places that I have paddled, in Hawaii—between
Molokai and Oahu. Locally I like to paddleboard along the Palos Verdes
cliffs. It’s nice when you have beautiful scenery.
What’s the coldest water you’ve ever paddled?
DJ: Up in Davenport, Santa Cruz County. Also Malibu. Denmark really wasn’t
Any tips for Angelenos who’d like to spend more time in the water?
DJ: Come paddle! The ocean will always be there.