Chris O’Brien’s Shallow Water Dive That Almost Cost Him his Life

Chris O'Brien's motto in life is "StaySteadyStuntin" which means to stay awesome.

Chris O’Brien’s motto in life is “StaySteadyStuntin” which means to stay awesome.

Editor’s Note: In high school, Chris O’Brien of Trumbull, Connecticut, was one of the best swimmers in the county. After graduation, he joined the swim team at College of Charleston in South Carolina and quickly climbed the ranks his freshman year. When he wasn’t studying, he was in the pool training. He never would have believed that his love for swimming would almost cost him his life. Part 2 of a 5 part series.

Besides swimming, Chris O’Brien loved sailing. “I grew up not too far from Long Island Sound,” O’Brien explains.“I always had a deep rooted fear of going out on the ocean, maybe because it was an unknown, but I thought the best way to get over the fear of being on a boat on the ocean was to learn how to sail, so I’d be forced to get out on the water. I began to learn to sail and found out I really enjoyed it.” This fear became one of his favorite recreational activities. By the summer after his freshman year at the College of Charleston, O’Brien had become so proficient as a sailor that he had the opportunity to become a sailing instructor at Longshore Sailing School in Westport, Connecticut. Like every other sailing instructor in the nation, before he could begin to work there he had to pass the US Sailing Certification, which not only tested his sailing skills, but also his teaching skills.

“I was teaching kids between the ages of 8 and 13, and I loved the job. I got to be on the water every single day, and when I wasn’t working, I got to sail by myself. I was having a great time at the sailing school.” But the fun ended on July 27, 2011. Chris and his best friend, Kevin Riley, had decided to take a day off and go to Block Island, Rhode Island, about 2-hours from his home in Trumbull. “You can take a ferry ride from the mainland over to the island, and it’s a typical beach town,” O’Brien explains. “There are a few small restaurants there and plenty of beach in all directions. My friends went out there all the time. We had planned to swim, play, have a good time and meet some girls. We arrived at Block Island about 9:00 am and spent the day swimming and messing around and then playing pick-up beach volleyball with some guys and girls we met there. About 5:00 pm, my mom called to check-in with me to see what was happening. I told her that we had perfect weather and were having a great time. Then about 20 minutes later, I was paralyzed.”

O’Brien was running into the water, and wasn’t really sure where the sandbars were on this beach or how deep the water was. He dove into the wave just as it started to curl, to try and dive through the wave. He didn’t know a sandbar was located right where the wave was curling. He knew the water was shallow, but he expected the water to be deeper than 2 feet. “I remember feeling the sand with my hand. Then I had a fuzzy sensation all over my body, and my ears were ringing. I was conscious the entire time. I opened my eyes underwater, and I remember seeing my arms floating down beside me. I tried to move my arms to roll over, and I couldn’t. Immediately I knew something was wrong. I tried to hold my breath and remain relaxed.

After he dove into a sandbar, Chris O'Brien knew something was wrong. But he managed to remain calm during the entire ordeal.

After he dove into a sandbar, Chris O’Brien knew something was wrong. But he managed to remain calm during the entire ordeal.

“Then I felt my body being turned over, and I was on my back. Another friend of mine saw what happened from the beach and ran into the water to get me and turn me over. By then some other friends arrived, and they pulled me up on the sand. I was having a hard time breathing and I couldn’t move any parts of my body. By then I knew I was in deep trouble, but I didn’t panic, because I knew I was in a safe place. A crowd gathered around me, and someone stabilized my neck. The lifeguards got to me after about 10 minutes and put me on a back board with a neck brace and drove me to the first-aid stand. Although I understood what had happened to me, I didn’t freak out. I don’t know how I remained so calm. When I got to the first aid stand, I was drifting in and out of consciousness. I remember being asked questions about my family and who the lifeguards should call. My friend Kevin, who was almost like my brother, had already called my mom. But he couldn’t really tell her what had happened to me, because he was so upset. Another friend took the phone from Kevin and told my mother that I dove into the water and hurt my neck, and I needed to go to the hospital. The lifeguards said I’d be airlifted to a hospital in Providence, RI, a 45-minute flight.”

Despite fading in and out of consciousness, O’Brien remembers lying in the ambulance, waiting on the helicopter. He only remembers a few minutes of the flight. When he woke up, he was on the helipad at the hospital. Once O’Brien’s parents arrived, the doctors, as O’Brien says, “Put a contraption on me.” The contraption was a halo brace. Two screws were put into his forehead, and two screws in the back of his head to help stabilize his spine. The halo brace came down into a chestplate. According to O’Brien, “When the doctors were drilling the screws into my head, it was one of the most painful experiences of my life. I wasn’t numbed at all, and it was a terrible feeling. I was confused and overwhelmed, because there was so much happening. Luckily, I didn’t realize how severe the situation was.” That was the last memory that O’Brien had of that night after the accident occurred.

To learn more about Chris O’Brien, visit his Facebook page at

Next: Chris O’Brien’s Surgery

About the Author: For the last 12 years, John E. Phillips of Vestavia, Alabama, has been a professional blogger for major companies, corporations and tourism associations throughout the nation. During his 24 years as Outdoor Editor for “The Birmingham Post-Herald” newspaper, he published more than 7,000 newspaper columns and sold more than 100,000 of his photos to newspapers, magazines and internet sites. He also hosted a radio show that was syndicated at 27 radio stations; created, wrote and sold a syndicated newspaper column that ran in 38 newspapers for more than a decade; and wrote and sold more than 30 books. Learn more at

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