WNBA | JWS
Caroline Marks surfing/ JWS

As the 2021 WSL Championship Tour gets underway in Hawaii, Caroline Marks, ranked #2 in the world, spoke with Just Women’s Sports about how it feels to compete on the CT again after COVID-19 washed out the 2020 season, the upcoming summer Olympics in Tokyo, and what an incredible time it is to be a professional women’s surfer. 

So bring us up to speed a little bit. How are you doing and where do we find you?

I’m doing great. I’m in Maui right now. I’m getting ready for the first event of the season, which is so exciting. It’s crazy that I’m actually saying that. The waves were amazing yesterday, some of the best Honolua Bay I’ve seen and surfed, so it was pretty awesome. I’m really, really excited to put the jersey back on. It’s been a long time, so yeah, just been in Maui and I’m enjoying that.

Surfing is definitely a unique sport in that you compete for so much of the year. Aside from the obvious, what impact has COVID had on the previous season and in prepping for the 2021 WSL Championship Tour?

I think this past year has felt like a really extended off season, that’s the way I put it. It’s weird, in a way I’ve been preparing the same as if the season would start the next day. Every day I still wake up with my daily goals and every day I’d work towards them. Once I heard the season was off, I definitely didn’t just forget about it or stop surfing a lot or stop training. I just kept on pace because I knew eventually they would say, ‘okay, we’re starting’ and I wanted to stay sharp and stay psyched.

Surfing is such an awesome sport, it’s something I want to do every single day. It doesn’t feel like a job. I wake up every morning and I want to surf anyways for fun, for my release. The last couple of months, I definitely ramped up my training and my surf hours for sure, but other than that, I have been doing the same thing. I have just been in one place instead of 10 different countries.

This tour’s title is the first that will be decided by a winner-take-all event at Lower Trestles next September, with the top five women on the tour leaderboard competing at that event. How do you feel about the new format and does it change your focus at all going into 2021?

I wouldn’t say it’s changed my focus. My focus is to win the world title and to surf my best every single event and give it my all — every time I paddle out, to go out there and win. That’s my goal, to go out there and not just to win, but to dominate and to give it my all and surf my absolute best and keep focused all year. So it definitely hasn’t changed my mindset. I’m going for the number one spot.

I’m so excited that it’s at Lower Trestles. That’s a wave that’s literally in my backyard. I live five minutes up the road from that wave, I ride my bike down there every day. So that’s really exciting and if all goes to plan, having my family there and all my close friends, that’d be so awesome.

I think it’s definitely cool to have a little change up. I’ve only been on the tour for a couple of years, I’m 18 now, but it’s cool to have a switch up. Regardless of what the format is, my goal every year is the same thing and that’s to win the world title. And I think also too, as far as from a fan standpoint, I think it will be really cool to watch the winner win in the water. I think that’s the ultimate feeling to win a world title in the water against somebody. It doesn’t get any better than that.

I saw at the men’s final last year, between Italo Ferreria and Gabriel Medina, it came down to the last final. It gave me chills. Number one and number two in the world were in the final and whoever won the final was the world champion. I think that is the most exciting thing ever. And that is the best feeling. Ferreria won the world title the best way you possibly could.

So the way the points break down this year, it’ll all have to happen right there in the waves in that moment?

Yea so no matter what, the top five go last. Fifth surfs against fourth and then the winner of that surfs against third and the winner of that surfs against second and the winner of that surfs against first, so if you’re in first place, you have an advantage because you have to surf less heats and you only have to beat one person. Last year me, Carissa [Moore], and Lakey [Peterson] were so far ahead that it was just three of us, fourth place wasn’t even in the world title race because of the points. This year you could be 10,000, 20,000 points behind from first place, but you can still win the world title. So that’s where it’s pretty crazy, but that’s where it’s also really exciting because it comes down to the last event, which is so gnarly, but so cool.

That’d be really cool, there’s nothing better than a solid in the moment contest.

And then too, you can tell all the fans ‘hey, guaranteed there’s going to be a world champ this event.’ So it’s pretty exciting.

To bring it back again to the here and now, what are you looking forward to most being in Maui?

It’s so awesome to have a little bit of a change of scenery. It’s nice to be back in warm water, warm weather. And obviously, just being around the girls in the water, just feeling that competitiveness and the free surfs and things like that. I’m just so stoked and I’m definitely looking most forward to putting the jersey on. That’s what I’m really, really excited about and I’m excited to see how everyone does. It’s been a whole year since we’ve competed — there’s been a few specialty events — but it’s been a whole year since we’ve competed in a WCT event so I’m really excited about that.

What do you think will be the most challenging part of the 2021 tour?

WSL is doing such an awesome job trying to make sure everyone’s safe with getting us all COVID testing and being in our bubble, but I think definitely getting used to that is a little different. I also think there might not be as many fans. The traveling might be the trickiest part. Just with timing, they really have to time everything like ‘okay I’m getting my COVID test today and then I have to wait a few days for the results’ and things like that. But other than that, once you’re in your bubble, it’s pretty awesome. You wear a mask and you know that all of the people around you tested negative, so you feel really safe. And then once you’re in the water, it’s the best thing ever because you feel free.

Is there anything about the schedule or the waves that you’re going to encounter at any of the locations that will make this tour different from others?

This year they’ve added Teahupoʻo for the girls, which is so amazing. We also have Sunset Beach and we have Steamer Lane, which is so awesome. It’s cool to have an event in California, and obviously Lowers is the most exciting ever. But it’s awesome to have Sunset and Teahupoʻo. I think that those waves are really going to push all of the girls. And I think bigger waves, heavier waves, more progressive surfing is the direction that female surfing is heading in more and more. Progression has gone through the roof the last couple of years, but it just keeps going up and up and I think those waves push the progression of the sport. I think that’s really exciting so I’m super stoked to have those waves.

You recently told the Olympic Channel that this past year really made you appreciate your lifestyle and getting to compete against your favorite surfers. What is it like to go up against role models and friends?

It’s really awesome. You know, I think all of the girls have such a great understanding of okay, when we’re in the water, we battle the hell out of each other and we’re here for one reason and that’s to win, but then as soon as you hit the sand, we can shake hands, be friends at the end of the day. I think that’s what’s so cool about all of the girls is that everyone’s cool and everyone’s nice, but we’re also all there to win. I respect that. It’s pretty awesome to compete against your heroes and it’s funny because I’m like, ‘I look up to all of you guys, but now I really, really want to beat you.’

Surfing is now an Olympic sport. What was your reaction to that news and what does it mean for the sport overall?

It’s really like a dream come true. Being a little girl, I never thought that surfing would be in the Olympics this soon. I think it’s so awesome. It definitely deserves that level of professionalism. All of the athletes and surfers I’m around, everyone works hard, everyone has a nutritionist, a trainer, everyone’s up early and doing their thing. Surfing is also such a cool and unique sport, I think it’s absolutely amazing to have it in the Olympics. That’s about the highest level of sporting you can reach so it’s absolutely amazing. It gives me goosebumps.

Will there be a shift in how you prepare for Tokyo compared to the Championship Tour and how are those two events going to overlap during the season?

I’m going to prepare like I do for any other contest. Every contest I enter I’m there to win, and I prepare the same. I prepare really hard. Every single one I try my hardest and I prepare my absolute best, so I’m not going to prepare any different [for the Olympics]. But I’m so excited and it should be absolutely incredible and so special to be able to represent my country. That’s the coolest thing ever. And to be the first one ever in the Olympics for surfing, that’s something no one can ever take away from me, which is pretty amazing.

For those who are less familiar with the technical aspects of competitive surfing, take us inside your mind a little bit. When you’re paddling out, what are you looking for in a wave and what is it that you’re there to accomplish?

Every wave is so different. Me paddling out at Teahupoʻo compared to me paddling out at Lower Trestles is completely different. Lower Trestles is a wave I describe as like a liquid skate park. It’s a really, really high performance, really fun wave. No barrels, it’s just really rippable. That’s where aerial maneuvers come into play, speed, power and flow, things like that, where Teahupoʻo you’re looking for the biggest, gnarliest barrel. So it’s two completely different things.

When you go out and surf, you’re pretty much looking for the best wave out there and to surf it your best. And the one thing that’s so cool about surfing is that it’s so unique, there’s never ever the same wave and I think that’s why you see people surf, you see 70-year-old people out there on longboards because it’s so exciting, it’s so fun, and it never gets old.

This is obviously a really pivotal time for female surfers. 2021 will be the first time that women have competed on the North Shore since 2010, and in 2019, the WSL announced equal prize money payouts for male and female surfers. These are two huge milestones for gender equality. How does it feel to be a female surfer right now and what more work does the sport have to do?

It’s so incredible and it’s so amazing to be a part of. I qualified for the tour in 2018, and the very next year they announced equal pay. I’m pretty sure WSL was one of the first organizations to do that in big sporting leagues. So it’s pretty amazing that surfing and the World Surf League was one of the firsts to put the right foot forward and say ‘hey, we are going to do this, and this is the message we want to send out.’ Another thing that was really cool, I think all of the men on the tour were really, really supportive of it. They posted about it a lot, which was so rad.

I think all of the women are really pushing themselves. Like I said, we have Teahupoʻo now and we have Sunset. Almost every single event for the girls and the guys is the exact same except for Pipeline, we have Maui and they have Pipeline, but every other event, we are with the guys, which is pretty amazing. Pretty incredible of WSL to do that, and it’s so incredible to be part of this movement. I think it’s just going to keep getting better.

So a little bit about you. At 15, you were the youngest surfer to ever qualify for the women’s Championship Tour. What impact has age had on your career and how you prepare physically and mentally for a competition?

Everything happened so fast for me. I used to ride horses and my older brother used to surf and I really got into surfing because of my older brothers. I just really wanted to impress them and for them to think I was cool and that’s why I started surfing. I’ve always been really, really competitive and as a kid I did everything, I played soccer, I played tennis, I played softball. I did everything you can think of.

I’d say when I was about 12-years-old is when I realized I wanted to be a pro surfer. And the year I qualified I was doing all of those events just for experience and just to compete against gnarlier girls in different places around the world. You can experience waves in Australia and in Europe and things like that. I just didn’t put much pressure on myself. I was just there to have fun and to learn. My only goal is to get better at surfing and that still is my goal every day, just to improve my surfing. I do believe at the end of the day, overall, the best surfing does win. So every day my goal is to just get better and better at certain things.

I qualified at 15 and I kind of never looked back and it’s been the best journey ever. I was never really able to look back on it until this year because I’ve had time to reflect on how awesome and amazing my life has been. And I’m only 18 now, I feel like the best years are ahead of me.

The cool thing about being so young is I feel like a sponge. I’m constantly absorbing things and I love learning. So I love when people tell me something, I really take it and I learn from it. It’s the best life ever. I would never change it for anything. It’s absolutely amazing.

When you think about your position in the sport as it is right now and the women who came before you and what they did to get the sport here, what legacy do you want to leave behind one day for the girls who are going to come up after you?

I want to show the girls that there is such an amazing future — surfing in the Olympics and there’s equal prize money. I always think ‘why not go surf that big wave? Why not try that maneuver that guys do that girls can’t, why not?’ And that’s the message I want to leave, go out there and get it. YOLO, you only live one life. Like why not? You know, that’s kind of what I think. That’s it and have fun. Make sure whatever you do in life, whether it’s surfing or not surfing, make sure you’re having fun. Surfing’s the most fun thing in the world to me.

What would be your advice to girls who are looking to get into surfing, who, you know, may never have picked up a board, but are watching you on TV or following you on Instagram?

I think consistency is key. Don’t give up, sometimes you can have a bad surf and get a little bit discouraged, but just go out there and keep trying. The ocean is the great equalizer, but it’s so much fun, it’s such an incredible sport. I’d say just grab a friend and go out there and try it.

What’s one piece of advice that you’ve received during your career that’s really stuck with you through some of the more difficult moments?

My coach has always told me, which is still my mindset, ‘you can not base your happiness off of results.’ It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. I think that really separates me because being on the tour at 15, so young, you’re so used to winning everything and you have all these high expectations for yourself and you feel all of this pressure from everyone else that expects you to win at every level. I think just knowing that made me go, ‘oh yeah, you’re right. I’m just going to give it my all and that’s all I can ask for.’

Obviously every single time I’m paddling out, I’m giving it my all and I’m out there to win. But at the same time, I have my goals, my life goals, and I think as long as I keep working towards that every day, I’m happy. Like I said, it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon and I know everything’s going to happen when and the way it’s supposed to.