At just 15, Caroline Marks is the youngest person ever to have made WSL's elite Championship Tour (CT) -- the upper echelon of competitive surfing. Making the CT takes most surfers years to achieve, but Marks -- who is still young enough to qualify for the Junior Tour -- has made that leap in record time.
She'll be making history as soon as the first event of the year, the Roxy Pro Gold Coast, rolls around March 11. But first, she has another task ahead of her, at the Ron Jon Florida Pro pres by Sunshine State Florida Lager this week on Florida's Space Coast, at Sebastian Inlet. As a QS event that's worth an impressive 6,000 rankings points, it has attracted a hefty number of CT-level surfers looking to warm up for the season, or perhaps to get an early jump on a qualification backup plan.
For this upbeat ingénue, however, the competition is more of a victory lap than a competitive hurdle. Marks grew up surfing Sebastian Inlet and Melbourne Beach, but relocated to Southern California with her family three years ago. Now, making her first trip back since qualifying for the big leagues, she has risen to hero status, on par with the last woman from Florida who made the Tour -- four-time World Champ Lisa Andersen. Marks took a few minutes to chat from the beach on what being home has been like, and the work she's been doing behind the scenes to prepare for 2018.
World Surf League: How has it been to be back in Florida?
Caroline Marks: It's been great. People are saying, ‘Oh you're the hometown hero!' It's pretty crazy. I actually walked into a supermarket yesterday and a couple people recognized me. Florida is small, and everyone kind of knows everyone. Everyone from the East Coast has been backing me.
Are people asking for your autograph?
Yeah! Pictures and autographs, congratulations about this year, are you excited for this contest, and things like that. ‘Let's take it all the way,' ‘good luck at this contest.' Which is the coolest thing ever. Good vibes all around.
What is distinct about being a surfer from Florida? Why is it so rare to have CT surfers from there -- you know, except for Lisa, and that other guy, Kelly Slater.
Maybe because there aren't a lot of great waves or as much opportunity, it makes us work for it, and we appreciate when the waves get good. And then obviously learning how to surf any kind of conditions. We haven't grown up surfing the good waves, so when we do see good waves, we get excited. We're definitely not surf-spoiled.
What do your routine and training look like?
I try to surf a minimum of four hours a day and do physical training a swell. I work with Mike Parsons [who is also the WSL Big Wave Tour Commissioner], we've been working on my technique, bigger waves, barreling waves -- being so young it's cool to work on that now. I'm so blessed to have an opportunity to do that. So Mike Parsons, and obviously my brothers, I'm always competing with them in the water, I do practice heats with them. We get really competitive.
You do practice heats with your brothers?!
Oh my god, yeah! I remember when I started surfing they'd be so hard on me, [saying things like] ‘You've got to turn harder, you need to have better style, you need to do airs, you've got to surf like a guy.' At the time, I thought they were being so mean. But now, I think it was so cool, because they've pushed me that much, and made me that much better of a surfer. Luke is now 19 and Zack is 17, I mostly run heats with them.
What is your work like with Parsons? Do surf much with Lakey Peterson, who he also coaches?
We actually just did a trip to San Francisco, to Ocean Beach, with Lakey and Mike, which was great. Mike and I do tons of one-on-one coaching, but also also practice heats with Lakey, we went to Mexico -- little strike missions. We went to Fiji together last year, and this upcoming year, we'll be traveling more on the tour together. It's cool to have her push me a lot, and to have someone to learn from.
In terms of of your thinking about making the CT for 2018, what were those conversations like with your family, as you were thinking through what to do?
When it happened, I was like, ‘Woah, that's been my dream for so long.' I always believed it would happen, but it happened super quick. I sat down with my dad, and Mike, and said, I have until March until the Tour starts [and to decide]. But I feel like I've progressed a lot with my surfing -- that's part of why I did so well this past year, because I was focusing more on getting better with surfing than on the outcome or result. Obviously the goal is requalify for 2019, but I'm still going to be the youngest one to make it [to the elite tour].
I sat down with my dad and I had to sign a WSL contract saying that I had to have a parent at every event because I'm so young, which is funny, but great, because I want the support there, too. The event windows are two weeks, so it's long trips. I had this feeling of, ‘Woah, this is happening. I feel ready. Let's do this, it's happening, really quick. This is what I want to do.'
Catch Marks surfing in the Ron Jon Florida Pro pres by Sunshine State Florida Lager live daily on the WSL now through Jan. 24, unless the event finishes earlier.