Smooth-riding but combative regularfooter from La Jolla, California; lauded in 1976 as California's best surfer by Pipeline ace Gerry Lopez. O'Rourke was born (1959) in New Jersey, began surfing at age 10 after his family moved to California, but didn't really take to the sport until he began riding Windansea, La Jolla's best-known break, at age 12. His talent was instantly recognizable—as were the shrill, obscenity-laced rants he directed to nonlocal surfers at Windansea—and in 1975, at age 16, he was the top-rated surfer in the Western Surfing Association's elite AAAA division.
California surfing at that point was in the middle of a decade-long, territorial, anticontest, antimedia period, and O'Rourke's gift was underappreciated, if not quite entirely unseen. He had brief appearances in two surf movies, A Matter of Style (1975) and Playgrounds in Paradise (1976), and was profiled by the American surf magazines.
O'Rourke was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease in 1977, and over the next four years he made at least three unexpected recoveries—in between surgeries, radiation treatments, and chemotherapy—during which he regained his dazzling form in the water. He placed third in the 1979 California Pro at Oceanside, the state's biggest surf event of the year, missing chemo treatments to compete. Doctors had removed part of his skull during one of his brain surgeries, so O'Rourke surfed with a yellow hockey helmet for protection. O'Rourke, now a Born Again Christian, announced in 1980 that he was cancer-free, but in the spring of 1981 he relapsed and died, at age 22, leaving behind a wife and infant son.
O'Rourke's biography, Child of the Storm: How an Angry Young Man Formed a Bond With the Sea and Changed Our Lives Forever, written by Kirk Aeder, was published in 2011.