Caitlin Simmers at the ISA World Surfing Games on Sept. 18, 2018 in Tahara, Aichi, Japan.
Caitlin Simmers doesn’t remember exactly how old she was — probably 6 or 7 — when her dad took her surfing for the first time.
She does remember being on the front of his board and at first being scared. That feeling quickly melted away into something else entirely.
“Then I had fun,” she said. “That’s when I started liking it.”
This week Simmers is representing the U.S. as the youngest member of the team competing at the ISA World Surfing Games in Tahara, Japan. At just 12 years old, the rising star has already made a name for herself as one of the most dynamic up-and-comers in the surfing world today.
The Oceanside, California, native is ranked No. 1 in the girls’ under-16 West Coast Prime series, was named National Scholastic Surfing Association 2018 Rookie of the Year and for the first time in contest history scored three perfect 10s at NSSA nationals in June.
Her mom, Ali Simmers, remembers the first time Caitlin competed just four years ago. It was a local contest and Caitlin moved through just one heat, but Ali remembers something more than just the result.
The waves were kind of big, and Caitlin was so tiny. Her parents didn’t know if she’d feel comfortable, but that turned out to not be a concern.
“She wanted to go where the kids were older,” Ali said. “I could see that competitive spirit click. When she started doing contests she did pretty well pretty quickly.”
Simmers is in the seventh grade and is homeschooled, which allows more time for her to surf than she’d have with a traditional school schedule. She tries to go out once a day, if not twice, for about two hours per session. If the waves are good, she’ll stay even longer.
Most of the time she surfs with her parents or her brother, who’s a year and a half younger, but she also loves surfing with her friends.
Her natural talent and competitive fire are something her parents didn’t imagine when her dad first took her in the water.
“Her dad always surfed, but he was just in it for fun,” Ali said. “I started surfing with the kids and I love it, but we’re not up on the technique or anything like that. The coaches just say she’s got this natural talent, and she’s super focused. When she’s not surfing a lot of the times she’s watching surfing. She’s able to apply what she sees and what she hears from the coaches accurately. They just say she’s very mature and they like her technique.”
Simmers is the youngest athlete on Team USA at the World Surfing Games, a major event in the sport but one in which USA Surfing elected to send a younger roster to this year. Summer Macedo, who won at the 2015 ISA junior world championship, and Zoe McDougall, who won the 2018 Vans US Open junior championship title, are both 18 years old.
The youngest member of the men’s team is 16 years old.
Simmers said she believes she’s had such a good year because she’s put a lot of time into training and practicing.
“I think (I’m better at) more progressive surfing, like airs and more innovative maneuvers on the surfboard that I couldn’t do a year ago,” said Simmers, who also includes skateboarding, basketball and art among her favorite activities when she’s not surfing. “That’s what I’ve been really working on.”
The hard work has paid off.
USA Surfing head coach Joey Buran said that Simmers is doing things on her surfboard that he’s never seen before from a 12-year-old.
“Caity has arguably one of the most, if not the most, progressive air games of any female surfer on the planet,” he said. “She is competing airs that women on the (Championship Tour) aren’t getting. This is the brave new world of surfing and this is her future.”
This is Simmers’ first time competing internationally. More than 200 surfers from 42 nations are competing, and the divisions are open so there are no age restrictions.
Conditions weren’t easy on the opening day of competition, with a typhoon swell making it difficult to even paddle out.
Simmers got off to a strong start on Monday. In her first heat, against an athlete from Russia, one from China and Australia’s Sally Fitzgibbons, a 27-year-old pro ranked No. 7 in the world, Simmers finished second to advance.
“In her first-ever ISA heat, with the Australian legend Sally Fitzgibbons, Caitlin had a solid second-place performance in bombing surf,” Buran said. “She got a stoked Team USA greeting on the beach.”
The preteen continued that success, winning her second- and third-round groups, holding off a former world champion in the latter. Though Simmers was eventually eliminated in the fourth round, enthusiasm over her performance remained high.
“This was an awesome day!” USA Surfing CEO Greg Cruse said via email, noting Simmers’ various performances. “Total amazing prodigy.”
This contest marks the start of Simmers’ international career, but certainly not the last.
Surfing will make its debut as an Olympic sport in Tokyo in 2020, and if Simmers’ career trajectory continues on its current path and the sport remains on the Olympic schedule, a spot in the Games in 2024 and beyond could be in her future.
“I’m really excited that surfing is in the Olympics,” said Simmers, who said her favorite Olympic sports to watch are snowboarding and skiing in the winter and gymnastics in the summer. “It’s a new thing and it’s a goal for the future.”