Caroline Marks, teenage surfing prodigy, poised to shine at Tokyo Olympics

(WSL/Matt Dunbar)

Caroline Marks was 3 years old when she first hopped on top of her dad’s longboard. It would take her five more years to realize her love of surfing, and seriously begin the journey that would lead her to the Tokyo Olympics at 19, but the athletic spark was always there.

As a young girl growing up in Melbourne, Fla., Marks was first drawn to horse stables. She had a passion for barrel racing, an event that times riders on their completion of a cloverleaf pattern around barrels.

It wasn’t until Marks was 9 that she decided to give surfing another shot. The middle child of six, Marks watched as her four brothers often went out to surf the break right across the street from their house. Marks liked being in the water but always considered surfing her brothers’ thing. Luke, her oldest brother and a former nationally ranked surfer, spent years traveling and competing in the World Surf League’s Qualifying Series.

“I just went out there with my brothers and just kind of got thrown into it,” Marks said, recalling her early memories of surfing in Florida. “My brothers influenced me. That’s why I started surfing, to impress them.”

Marks qualified for the Olympics in 2019 at 17 years old. (WSL/Cait Miers)

From there, Marks’ ascension in the sport was remarkably fast. At 15, she became the youngest female surfer to qualify for the World Surf League (WSL) Championship Tour.

Two years later, Marks qualified for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as one of four American surfers to compete in the sport’s Olympic debut.

“Oh man, that was one of the biggest, if not the biggest accomplishment of my career,” Marks said.

Only two surfers per gender can represent their nation at the Olympic Games. Marks, who earned her spot after qualifying for the WSL’s final Maui Pro event in 2019, and Carissa Moore will lead the way for Team USA this summer.

Marks, now 19, knows a thing or two about making history. She will never forget being just 13 years old and making it into a Championship Tour event by way of a wild-card invitation to the Swatch Pro at Trestles in 2015.

“There were a lot of nerves involved,” Marks said. “I got the call at the very last minute, the night before, which in a way I’m really grateful for because I didn’t have a lot of time to overthink it.”

Growing up in a big family helped Marks learn not to take things too seriously, a trait that allows her to compete at the highest level against surfers much older than she is.

“I think with surfing, you have to be good at adapting,” she said. “Growing up with five other siblings, you never really got your way and you had to go with the flow and roll with the punches.”

Marks is known in her family as the “surf rat” — she looks at home in the water, cutting through the waves and completing each aerial maneuver with ease. When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down sports across the world and postponed the Olympics until 2021, Marks’ daily routine and training schedule didn’t change much.

“Thankfully, surfing is a sport where you can be socially distant very well,” she said. “I’ve been doing the same thing. The only thing different is that I wasn’t really traveling, but I stayed ready so I didn’t really have to get ready.”

(WSL/Matt Dunbar)

Marks’ training regimen paid off when live competitions resumed. She won a WSL competition in April and is currently ranked sixth on the Women’s Championship Tour.

When asked what ideal conditions would be for the Olympics, Marks said “four to five feet, really rippable, fun, clean, and tons of waves and opportunities so we can surf it out.” She knows many people will be watching surfing for the first time this summer, and she wants them to enjoy it as she does, in all of its unpredictability.

“I just want all of us to put on a great performance at the Olympics,” Marks said. “Hopefully we get great waves, and people see it’s a unique and different sport in the way we have to rely on mother nature.”