Each month, Team USA Awards presented by Dow celebrates outstanding achievements of U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes. Surfer Caroline Marks won Female Athlete of the Month for April 2019 after winning a Women’s Championship Tour event and claiming the No. 1 spot in the world ranking. In her Diamond Club feature, presented by Dow, Marks shares how a focus on enjoying herself has helped her find success at a young age.
When Caroline Marks was 13 years old, she remembers being alongside one of her older brothers as part of an autograph session at a surfing event with her very first sponsor.
Fans asked for her signature, but more because she was among some more well-known surfers than because they knew who she was.
Things are much different now.
At 15 years old, Marks became the youngest surfer to ever qualify for the World Surf League Women’s Championship Tour. Now 17 and in her second year on the tour, she’s the top-ranked woman in the world after winning the first event of the season. Marks was named Team USA’s Female Athlete of the Month for April.
If things continue to go the way they have so far, Marks stands an excellent chance of being one of the first surfers ever to represent Team USA at the Olympic Games, as surfing will make its debut on the Olympic program at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. Two U.S. women can qualify for the Games based on the Championship Tour ranking.
Throughout her rise and now in the midst of success, however, the most important thing to Marks is that she’s enjoying herself. Even at a young age, she seems to have struck the difficult balance between being competitive and taking her career seriously yet not so seriously that she forgets to savor the ride.
“I’m just having the time of my life,” she said. “I’m having so much fun.”
The Melbourne Beach, Florida, native would never have started surfing if it weren’t for the influence of her two older brothers, Luke and Zach, and her burning desire to both impress and beat them. Besides increasing her competitive spirit, Marks’ brothers also got her into surfing when she was 8 years old.
“In order for (my brothers) and their friends to accept me I had to surf and surf better than them,” Marks said. “They’ve pushed me more than anyone. They’ve been my biggest supporters, and they definitely gave me a lot of constructive criticism. I came home crying a lot, but it made me the surfer I am today.”
By the age of 15, Marks had racked up an impressive array of titles and wins on the youth levels. In 2017, she got on the WSL Qualifying Series, and although she finished seventh — the top six from qualifying move on to the World Championship Tour — a pair of surfers ahead of her double-qualified and opened the door for Marks to become the lone rookie and youngest surfer on the 2018 roster.
Although she came in not knowing many of the other women on tour or the locations where she’d be competing, Marks said she felt nerves but no pressure going into last season.
“I figured this isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon and I want to do this for a long time,” she said. “And no matter what happened I was going to get better. I had the exact same mentality as I did in qualifying, that I wanted to focus on my surfing, learn and no matter what happened just enjoy everything, the wins and even the losses. I think that really helped.”
With three third-place finishes in 10 events last season, Marks was named rookie of the year and finished the season ranked seventh in the world.
USA Surfing CEO Greg Cruse has been watching Marks surf for years and has always been impressed by her natural competitiveness and self-motivation.
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Caroline Marks walks out of the water after competing at the World Surf League Ranch Pro on Sept. 9, 2019 in Lemoore, Calif.
“She’s an intense competitor, but she’s able to calm herself during competitions and get down to business,” Cruse said. “She doesn’t get rattled in the water. She also doesn’t view herself as having any limits, so she’s doing things in the water that are previously unheard of or very rare for girls, aerial surfing and things of that nature. It’s just part of her repertoire and she doesn’t hold back.”
Marks said she still thinks of herself as an underdog this season, but her results beg to differ.
At the season-opening Boost Mobile Pro Gold Coast in Australia, Marks beat seven-time world champion Stephanie Gilmore in the quarterfinal and three-time world champion Carissa Moore in the final to claim her first Women’s Championship Tour win. Since this is the first season of equal pay for men and women, she also became the first woman to earn the same as the men’s winner – $100,000.
Marks then finished third at the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach and was ninth at the Corona Bali Protected, which is still ongoing.
Marks has learned so much, she said, during the past year, from training with coach Mike Parsons, a member of the Surfer’s Hall of Fame, to being around teammate and travel partner Lakey Peterson, who finished last season ranked second, to free surfing and competing with some of the best women and men in the world as they move from break to break.
And, of course, it’s been fun.
“I’ve learned to really enjoy the moment you’re in because it’s crazy, sometimes it feels like in the blink of an eye I’m already in year two,” she said. “I’m just having so much fun that everything’s flying by really fast.”
Marks ultimately hopes her success in the water leads to her being a part of the first group of surfers representing Team USA at the Olympics.
“It would be unreal to represent my country and be with the team there,” Marks said. “It’s going to be sick and for sure it’s a goal of mine.”
Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.