By sports editor Russell Bennett
Few understand the dizzying heights and gut-wrenching lows of sport better than Botanic Ridge wakeboarder Jake O’Donnell.
The five-time Victorian state champion and current Australian national champ has been wakeboarding since 2008 when he was just eight years old, but what he has experienced, physically, on his journey so far would be enough to turn most people away.
Water sports are in Jake’s blood, through an extensive family connection that includes both his father and uncle, and he won’t turn his back on his goals just because he’s already had to face more than his share of adversity.
Instead, he persists.
A former elite junior footballer with the Langwarrin Junior Football Club and Dandenong Stingrays squad, Jake won three Victorian Wakeboard titles before the first of two straight shoulder injuries that effectively kept him off the water for the better part of two years.
The first was while competing in the Australian Open in Canberra, where he’d already cemented his place for that season’s Moomba competition.
It was during his final run, and performing his last trick, that he blew his shoulder out – just before his 17th birthday.
“The first time I did it, I did the eight months’ rehab so that put me out of action until about August,” he explained.
“I was told by my physio on the Friday that I was all clear, and then I went to the snow for the next two days, and came home on the Sunday night and went to work, and then after work – because I hadn’t wakeboarded for such a long time – I went to the Melbourne Cable Park near Carrum.
“No word of a lie, I did about three laps of the park and I got out and I felt really good, so I thought I’d try some of my old tricks. On my first hit on the kicker, in mid-air I heard my arm come out of its socket.
“When I landed I looked down at my arm and it was the same thing as the first time.”
For Jake’s first surgery, he had a labrum repair – after damaging his glenoid and tearing the labrum altogether.
That required seven staples in his shoulder to hold it together, followed by eight months of rehab only to end up right back at square one following a number of other dislocations.
So, for his second surgery, he opted for a different path – he had what’s called Latarjet surgery.
“They cut you open and move a bone so it sits in front of the shoulder so it can’t come out again,” Jake explained.
“They put a block in front of it so it can’t slide out of the joint any more.
“I think the recurrence rate of someone under 21, when you have the first surgery, is about 80 per cent – it’s like they’re putting a BandAid over it. There’s only many times you can do it before it’s just no good.”
For his second surgery, Jake looked into the procedure AFL superstar Gary Ablett Jr had on his own shoulder.
He even opted for the same surgeon – Dr Greg Hoy from the Melbourne Orthopaedic Group.
“I went to the exact same surgeon as Gary Ablett, had that same surgery, did the same rehab, and pretty much haven’t looked back since,” Jake said.
“I had a couple of mates who’ve done their shoulders and gone this Latarjet surgery option too, and they’ve all come to me to ask about the first kind of operation and I just tell them not to even bother.”
Jake was in the junior men’s category – from ages 15 to 18 – when he missed the bulk of two seasons on the water.
It’s taken incredible mental strength to push forward but, now in his early 20s, he’s motivated by the ultimate – once again reaching the summit, and staying there.
“Now I’m in the amateur division – 19 to 29 – but it’s weird because I’m still winning competitions after I had two years off the water and I’m still competing with people who have two years on me.”
Jake acknowledged his situation is particularly frustrating given the double-edged sword of knowing how much time on the water he’s already missed, but also being encouraged by what he’s clearly still capable of.
“Eight months (of rehab) doesn’t sound very long, but when you’re around the water every single day, it’s absolute hell,” he explained.
“It’s just one of those sports – you hear about a lot of injuries in wakeboarding compared to most other sports.
“In a competition you pretty much get 10 tricks – five on the run up, and another five on the way back. If you hesitate or miss on a trick, you’ll lose. It’s that close.
“You have to try and land these tricks back-to-back in a competition, so you just have to just go for it.”
And now, Jake is known amongst his tight circle of family and friends for his mantra, which is “Trust the process”.
In his first competition back after two surgeries and two missed seasons, he won the Victorian Open Men’s competition. He then went on to win the Open Men’s series in 2018/19, as well as the 2018/19 state title.
This year, he backed up that incredible achievement by winning both titles again, as well as the Australian title for men’s 19 to 29 years.
On the week of that competition on the Maribyrnong River, his boss wasn’t going to let him off work to compete. So, Jake – a refrigeration mechanic – quit his job of four years to compete. He didn’t want to watch another chance slide by.
“If you’d have told me when I dislocated my shoulder the second time that I’d go on and win the Australian Championships I would have thought you were joking,” Jake said.
“But I’ve put in a lot of work. It hasn’t come easy.
“I’m usually at the gym six days a week – there’s a lot that people wouldn’t think would go into wakeboarding.
“A lot of it is a mental thing too – if you’re not mentally there in a competition, you probably will end up hurting yourself.”
Jake is sponsored by Mac’s Waterski World in Moorabbin and Axis Boats and Melbourne Malibu.