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O’Neill - The 60th Anniversary of the First Name in the Water

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The 60th Anniversary of the First Name in the Water

By: Kerri-Lynn Swanson
Photos: Courtesy of O’Neill

In 1952, when Jack O’Neill constructed and sold his first surfing vest, many in the surfing community thought he was crazy. They could not have imagined him selling these vests to more than a few local surfers; no one could perceive that there was a large market for wetsuits. They were wrong, of course, but that is because they did not see what Jack saw. Where they saw limits, he saw endless opportunity and it is this persistently innovative spirit that is tightly woven into the fabric of who O’Neill is and where they are going.

The History of O’Neill

Although the roots of surfing run deep in the island cultures of the Pacific, it is a relatively new sport in the United States. At the time that Jack was constructing his foam vests, surfing had yet not gained widespread popularity. It would be almost another 10 years before bands like the Beach Boys would take surfing mainstream. Still, Jack saw potential in the popularity of the sport and opened up the world’s very first Surf Shop in 1952.

In 1955, Jack began assembling his vests with a new material that was being researched down the road at UC Berkeley. Neoprene Rubber was being researched by the university for use in the construction of deep-sea diving suits. Jack began gluing pieces together and constructed the world’s first neoprene wetsuit. By the 1960s surfing began to gain mainstream popularity, thanks not only to pop music and the movies but also because of Jack’s invention. Surfing was no longer a warm water sport – people could surf for longer periods of time in colder water. That also meant that surfers could explore waters in places that they never could before – no water was off limits to adventurous surfers and it was not long until other water sports took note. Since the original invention of the wet suit in the 50s, the O’Neill brand has continued to push the envelope, always knowing there is a better way to do things as long as you seek solutions with the right amount of passion.

The same innovative drive that led to the first wetsuit also helped O’Neill create many firsts; the first wetsuit boots, the first split toe boots, the first surf leash, the first rash guard.

The list goes on and on. What was once an obscure sport practiced by those in warm water has now become a multi-billion dollar industry, thanks to Jack O’Neill and his unwavering determination to spend as much time in the water as possible.

ONeill Timeline

O'Neill Sea Odyssey O’Neill Sea Odyssey

Jack O’Neill’s successes have always been fueled for the deep passion and connection he feels toward the environment and Mother Nature. In 1996, the same year that he was inducted into the Surfing Walk of Fame, Jack established the O’Neill Sea Odyssey.

The program is free of charge and open to students in the 4th – 6th grades; in order to be selected to participate in the program, each student must design and perform a project that benefits the community. Once the students have fulfilled their community service obligations, they are rewarded with an exciting day filled with activities and lessons. The students begin their day with fun hands on exploration aboard a 65ft. catamaran that is situated in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

Once the hands on exploration is complete, they finish their incredible learning experience with follow-up lessons conducted at the education center in the Santa Cruz Harbor. Since its inception in 1996, more than 60,000 students have participated in this program, many of whom had never seen the ocean, let alone observed aquatic life in a tide pool. In 1999, the O’Neill Center in participation with the Adam Webster Memorial Fund began providing this program for cognitively and physically challenged individuals. The O’Neill Sea Odyssey has been honored to receive several awards for their work in community services and marine studies, including The California Governor’s Award (2005) and the Conservation Champion Award (2005). The contributions that the program has made to the environment as well as the surrounding communities are also evident in the support system that keeps the program running. From local donors and sponsors to the volunteers that spend their time teaching the children that come through the center, it is obvious that the coastal community wants to be a part of the positive relationship that the O’Neill Sea Odyssey is developing between today’s youth and the environment.

Bet you don’t know Jack….

Jack O’Neill is not your typical business man – but then again selling surf gear was not always considered a typical business. Born in Colorado, Jack’s family moved to California when he was young. Jack eventually settled in San Francisco, earning his keep working on the docks and selling various wares. Jack knew one thing for sure – he loved the ocean, and would sneak away to bodysurf whenever the opportunity arose and the water was tolerable. Although his invention of the recreational wetsuit would go on to revolutionize water sports – all Jack really wanted to do was be the first one in and the last one out. Jack’s innovative spirit is what keeps the company at the forefront of water sport equipment and technology and why O’Neill has been a company of firsts for over 60 years. Even his Pleasant Point, California home is uniquely Jack – there are portholes to view the ocean from the showers, stairs have been replaced with trampolines and there is even a bathtub on the balcony where one can enjoy the refreshing ocean spray as the waves crash the rocks below.

So whether you are surfing in Santa Cruz in March or diving in the Antarctic in June, you can thank Jack for taking you there. Nowadays with his son Pat at the helm, Jack spends his time enjoying nature and working hard to protect it. Aside from his contributions to various ocean projects such as O’Neill Sea Odyssey, he has also spent the last several years raising awareness for the endangered great white shark.

Team O'Neill Team O’Neill

Behind everything that bears the O’Neill name is a unique research and development process. The “rider developed, rider proven” approach to new product development not only maintains the innovative spirit of Jack O’Neill but also fuels the success and popularity of action sports. From the very first wetsuits that jack sold from his surf shop, the purpose of the products that bear the O’Neill logo is to allow people to push the boundaries of what they think is possible. From wakeboarding to surfing and beyond, Team O’Neill is home to some of the best and brightest names in action sports. From Jack himself, to Peter Pan in the 1970s to Jourdy Smith in 2000s, these athletes not only keeps the company innovative, but also fuel the success and popularity of the sports they represent. Team O’Neill continues to sponsor some of the brightest and most influential athletes among many action sports in events around the world. What they all have in common is their incredible talent and the power to propel their sports to the next level. Team O’Neill sponsors athletes that continually challenge the limits of snow and water sports and fuel the creation of new, exciting and innovative products.

Their “rider developed, rider proven” approach has also put the company on the forefront of the event and competition side of the action sports they design products for. In the late 1980s O’Neill became the first company to sponsor a snowboarding event and introduced Europe to Snowboarding for the first time. Since then, O’Neill has been constantly developing ground-breaking and challenging competitive formats that give riders what they need to further their respective sports. The Cold Water Classic, which takes place in Santa Cruz, is arguably one of the most iconic surfing competitions in the world. Born out of a desire to celebrate the environment that inspired Jack O’Neill, this completion has become a series hosted in several locations around the world and has recently been awarded Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) World Tour Status.

By creating a sustainable structure of events and sponsorships that are constantly fueling the popularity of the sports and the athletes that they sponsor, Team O’Neill maintains its status as a driving force behind the increase in popularity of sports such as freestyle snowboarding, kite boarding, and surfing.

A Lifestyle Brand A Lifestyle Brand

O’Neill has gone from a surf shop in San Francisco to one of the world’s leading men’s and womens’ lifestyle and fashion brands. Aided by the popularity of Team O’Neill athletes and national television shows the look and feel of the Coastal California lifestyle to living rooms across the country, the surf apparel industry has gone from obscure to fashion forward in the past decade. Surfing fashions have leapt from sandy floored surfshops to the shelves of some of the most fashionable boutiques in the country.

Since the inception of the clothing and accessories line, O’Neill strives to not only make clothing that looks good but is also functional. From their UV 24/7 line of suits and rash guards to the first seamless board shorts on the market, the innovation that propelled their success in the world of action sports has also helped the company become a leading name in ready-to-wear clothing. Their women’s fashions are beach inspired and street friendly and their men’s line features everything from shoes to jeans to board shorts in true California style.

The O'Neill Brand The brand is also looking to continue its growth and success in the fashion world well into the future. A visit to the O’Neill clothing line is like a tour through a surf-inspired department store. The O’Neill girls offer fashion advice, tips and tricks on their daily blog to help inspire future fashionistas with the O’Neill brand of clothing and accessories. It also comes as no surprise that O’Neill clothing has entered the competitive world of fashion. When the company introduced the Superkini, they launched a model search to huge success; thousands of women from across the world entered for their chance to be the next face of the O’Neill Superkini. In fact, the company has launched a campaign for the second annual Superkini model search in celebration of the company’s 60th anniversary.

As surfers such as Sage Erickson, Malia Manuel, and Jordy Smith continue to influence the world of surfing their fashion styles will undoubtedly influence pop culture and the world of fashion for decades to come.


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