There were four Semifinalists remaining in the Rip Curl Women's Pro Bells Beach, but only one that could make history. Caroline Marks didn't get past Stephanie Gilmore in their matchup, but her hair's-breadth from making history only burnishes her shiny arrival and incredible results so far on the WSL Championship Tour (CT).
Fifteen years before Marks was born, Nick Wood became the youngest person ever to win the Rip Curl Pro and ring the prestigious Bell. Wood was just 16 years and six months when he surfed all the way from the Trials to the winners' podium, back in 1987. Marks, who turned 16 on Valentine's Day, would have broken Wood's record as the youngest Bells winner ever, had she made it past Gilmore. While she couldn't keep the lead from her more seasoned opponent, her achievement is still astonishing, especially it comes on the heels of a Quarterfinal finish at Snapper last month -- her first-ever event as a member of the CT.
Marks's incredible success at such a young age places her firmly in the footsteps of prodigies who have come before her. Two-time, reigning World Champion Tyler Wright, for example, still stands as the youngest-ever winner of a WSL Championship Tour (CT) event with her 2008 win at the Beachley Classic as a 14-year-old wildcard. Two years later, at 16, Wright became the youngest surfer to qualify for the CT, a record she held until Marks' arrival this year. After Wright qualified, it took another two years to win an event as a full-fledged CT competitor, and then another three before she won her first World Title at the ripe old age of 21.
Gilmore, too -- who, with six World Titles, is close to the women's record of seven -- stared her career at a remarkably young age. Her first CT win, also as a wildcard, came at the Roxy Pro Gold Coast when she was 17. She two took another two years to qualify, but her impact was immediate, and incredible. On her very first year on the CT, at 19, she won four events and the World Title. By the time she was 22, she had bagged another three.
In what is emerging as a pattern, Carissa Moore -- the three-time World Champion -- also won her first CT as a 17-year-old wildcard in 2008, but had to wait another two years before she claimed another a full-time member of the top 16. Like Gilmore, though, once she had a taste, she proved unstoppable, winning the World Title in her sophomore year while still in her teens.
The scary thing about Marks, though, is that she has started earlier and with more success than all these legends of the sport. She surfed in a CT event at Lower Trestles in 2015 as a 13-year-old, making her the youngest surfer ever to do so. When she qualified for the CT last year, at 15, she again set a new benchmark for youth on Tour. It is also worth noting that Marks spent a large chunk of 2015 out of the water with a broken ankle. It boggles the mind to think that her ascent to the top tier of the sport could have been any faster, had she been in full health.
At this rate, Marks is emulating Gabriel Medina, who is among the most prominent and successful prodigies to emerge in men's surfing in recent years. The Brazilian qualified for the CT aged just 17 and then won two of the first four events he entered. He, too, parlayed his teenage success into the sport's highest accolade claiming his, and Brazil's, first World Title just days before his 21st birthday. Of course, a certain Kelly Slater also managed to win his first World Title before he was legally allowed to drink (age 21 in the US) and then went on to add 10 more Titles over the next two decades.
Only time will tell whether Marks can match the achievements of Wright, Medina, Gilmore and Moore. But surfing history has shown that talent can shine bright and it can shine early. By making the Semifinals at Bells, she's shown that she's orbiting the stratospheric achievements of her elders, and surely, greatness awaits.