By Alex Abrams | Oct. 31, 2019, 1:38 p.m. (ET)

Coaches from Team USA and Team Japan gather at a “Thank You, Japan” barbecue hosted at the ISA World Junior Surfing Championship on Oct. 30, 2019 in Huntington Beach, Calif.

 

Caroline Marks had been home for less than two days, and she was already back at the beach. The 17-year-old surfing phenom didn’t need any more time to recover from what she called the best trip of her life.

Marks cheered Wednesday morning as her friends competed in the ISA World Junior Surfing Championship in Huntington Beach, California. She was then one of the first guests to arrive at a barbecue that USA Surfing hosted for the Japanese junior national team later in the day.

There’s nothing more American than brisket, ribs and pulled pork, and Marks wanted to enjoy herself after a hectic past few days. The teenager earned her second World Surf League Women’s Championship Tour victory this season at the MEO Rip Curl Pro Portugal on Saturday.

It was Marks’ first time visiting Portugal and the last stop on her European trip, which included a second-place finish at the Roxy Pro France in mid-October.

“Obviously, the fact that I won made it a lot better. But I just think Europe is so rad,” said Marks, who is from Melbourne Beach, Florida. “There are so many good waves around (and) not many people. I just had an awesome crew. My brother was there with me, and I just had some much fun.”

A barbecue has a way of bringing people together, even rival surfers competing on the same waves. Japan won the gold medal at the 2018 ISA World Junior Surfing Championship, and the Americans had to settle for silver.

A year later, with surfing set to make its Olympic debut at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, USA Surfing chief executive officer Greg Cruse decided to hold a barbecue for Team Japan. It was part of the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee’s “Thank You, Japan” goodwill campaign.

“It’s just becoming real. Before it was like ‘Wow, surfing is in the Olympics,’” Cruse said. “And now it’s like, ‘Yes, surfing is in the Olympics and let’s work toward developing the talent and making sure we field good teams and put resources toward that.’”

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The Olympic field for surfing will include 20 men and 20 women. A country can have a maximum of two surfers per gender, and finishes in the WSL factor into the qualification process.

As a result, Marks has put herself in position to possibly qualify for her first Olympics as a teenager. She ranks third in the Women’s Championship Tour following last week’s win in Portugal, and with one event remaining she trails only fellow Americans Carissa Moore and Lakey Peterson.

If Marks can edge out Moore and Peterson at the Hawaii Pro in late November in Maui, the teenager could also become the youngest world champion in history.

“For sure I’m thinking about the Olympics, and I really want to be in the Olympics,” Marks said. “But at the same time, I’m not really putting that pressure on myself because I have so much time and I’m so young. But of course, I definitely want to be in the Olympics and to represent America would be incredible. Yeah, it would be super cool.”

Cruse said the impact of surfing becoming an Olympic event has been evident this week at the junior world championship.

In previous years, some countries arrived at the international tournament without enough surfers to field a women’s team. That’s not the case anymore, though.

Countries have shown more of a commitment to funding junior surfing programs with the hope of developing surfers for the 2024 and 2028 Olympic Games in Paris and Los Angeles, respectively. Young surfers have also taken on a different mindset.

“Now it’s more (going) from, ‘I want to find a big sponsor and go pro’ to, ‘Wow, my governing body … has programs now to develop a path to the Olympics,’” Cruse said. “It’s kind of changing how everything works.”

Marks said her focus remains winning every time she paddles out into the ocean to compete. As she arrived at Wednesday’s barbecue, she admitted her season has been “crazy” with the nonstop traveling from one tour event to the next.

However, Marks will get a few weeks to relax at home with her family before she leaves for the Hawaii Pro.

“I’m really stoked with what I’ve been able to do this year, and I’m always just trying to better myself every day,” Marks said. “But yeah, it feels really good. It has been the best year of my life, so it’s been really fun and I’m excited for the last event.”

But first there was barbecue to eat.

Alex Abrams has written about Olympic and Paralympic sports for more than 15 years, including as a reporter for major newspapers in Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.