IF you were to pick some kind of sign prophesying that a young athlete is destined for greatness, success at an eyebrow-raising early age is a pretty solid indication you’ve got a budding star on your hands. Future sports heroes are typically advanced well beyond their years, not only dominating their peer group, but also stepping up to challenge seasoned competitors who are much older and far more experienced. Think about LeBron James, Tiger Woods, Wayne Gretzky, the Williams sisters, Kelly Slater, Carissa Moore–all enjoyed success, often against adults, while they were still freckly-faced teenagers.
Greatness was obviously waiting just down the road. We should probably think about adding 16-year-old Caroline Marks to that list. At the end of the 2017 World Surf League season, Marks, then only 15, about the age most of us are sophomores in high school, became the youngest competitor in history–male or female–to qualify for the World Championship Tour. Too young to drive, but old enough to be thrown into the ring against surfers like six-time World Champ Steph Gilmore, who is 15 years older and won her first world title when Marks was still the age of a kindergartner.
Marks’ early qualification shouldn’t have been much a surprise, however. She started surfing at age eight, in Melbourne Beach, Florida, a hotbed of East Coast talent. A mere one year later, Marks won the very first surf contest she ever entered. That victory was like a giant, flashing, neon sign advertising what was to come.
In the seven years between learning to surf and qualifying for the big leagues–a crazily short span–Marks collected a truckload of junior titles, really turning it on in the years just before she earned her WCT berth. She was the International Surfing Association Under-16 champ in 2016. In 2015 and 2016 she won the highly-contested US Open Pro Junior. Marks also found time to reign as the NSSA Open Women’s champ the same years.
In the Roxy Pro at Snapper Rocks, the first event of her rookie year, Marks advanced to the Quarterfinals, showing absolutely no fear of the older, more experienced surfers she left in her wake heat after heat. Marks came within a whisker of knocking out perennial title contender Sally Fitzgibbons in her final heat of the contest.
Marks’ ability to push past competitors a decade older turned plenty pro surfing observers’ heads. “She is very intelligent and thus has the mental equipment to make the most of her developing skills,” said veteran surf pundit Nick Carroll. “Her surfing is very raw and still quite unformed but the basics are just wonderful, powerful and creative…kind of fearless in a way, which for a 16-year old girl is unusual to the point of being extraordinary.”
Because Marks surfs with a heavy-footed, powerful style based on a solid foundation of rail engagement, the young goofyfoot has drawn comparison with Mark Occhilupo–another precocious power broker who bulled his way onto the competitive stage, surfing with a technique that was mature beyond his years. Watching Marks surf at a wave like Bells, the Occy comparison is especially apt. Like Occy, she’ll draw out bottom turns over a couple dozen yards before roaring upward to tear massive chunks off the top of the wave, or throw her board at the lip for beyond-vertical foam climbs.
When a teenaged girl is reminding the surf world of one of its most talented and treasured heroes, you just know they have a bright future ahead.
[This is an excerpt from “A Line of Their Own”, featured in SURFER Vol. 59, Issue 3, which profiles six women who are carving unique paths through shaping, competition, big-wave surfing and beyond]