Caroline Marks will be the first to tell you that 2019 was the best year of her life. At 17, the pro surfer finished her season ranked number two in the world, an impressive result for just her second year on the WSL Championship Tour — and one that secured her a provisional spot at the 2020 Olympics, where surfing will be contested for the first time. It came down to the final contest of the year, where three American surfers — Caroline, Carissa Moore, and Lakey Peterson — vied for both the Olympics and the coveted world title. It was a high-stakes situation for any surfer, let alone one who was just off her rookie season.
"I've got nothing to lose," Caroline told POPSUGAR before the last contest, the Lululemon Maui Pro. Her relative inexperience meant that people weren't expecting much from her, she explained. Her age meant that the pressure was somewhat off; she has many years to win a world title and could potentially compete in multiple Olympics over the course of her career. "The only expectations are the ones I'm putting on myself." She'd already surpassed her own goals for the year, but that success had only fed the drive for more. "I'm not satisfied," she said. "I really want to win."
Caroline entered the contest ranked third in the world, trailing Lakey in second and Carissa in first. She lost in the first heat and landed in the elimination round, where another loss could have knocked her out of the competition, the world title race, and Olympic qualifications in one fell swoop. Instead, she rallied to win that heat and the following round of 16 matchup. Despite getting knocked out in the quarter-finals (to Stephanie Gilmore, a seven-time world champion and the eventual winner of the competition), Caroline's comeback was enough to propel her to the second spot in the rankings and punch her ticket to Tokyo 2020. Caroline and world title winner Carissa Moore will both be representing the US in the Olympics, something Caroline said was a childhood dream of hers.
But even before qualifying, even before climbing almost to the top of the leaderboard, Caroline's year had been a success by any standards. She won her very first CT event, which was also the first contest in which the WSL paid out equal prize money to both men and women. "It was just crazy to be the one to win it. It was a really special moment for me and my family and the sport of surfing. It was just incredible to be a part of," Caroline said, acknowledging that the female surfers who came before her had really made the milestone possible. ("Luckily my timing was really good!")
It was also the first CT contest that her entire family — both parents, plus five siblings — had witnessed in person. When she joined them on the beach after the win, "I just started bawling," she remembered.
Caroline grew up surfing with her brothers in Florida, where the inter-sibling rivalries would get so intense that Caroline would come in crying if she lost a heat to them. "My brothers and I are so competitive, it's unbelievable," she said.
It fed into a natural drive to be the best, an intensity that's palpable when you talk to her. "I'm addicted to competing and that winning feeling," Caroline said. "I want to impress my brothers, I want to impress my dad. I want to make everyone proud. It's just something I've always had."
Caroline is in her last year of high school and fits in homeschooling around major competitions, but her priorities are clear-cut. She's known since age 11 that surfing is what she wants to do, and in this breakout year on tour, she's made over $400,000 in prize money alone. She thrives on competition and the thrill of victory; along with raw talent and a solid work ethic, it's part of the reason why she's seen such success so quickly. But at the end of the day, the sport of surfing is what Caroline really loves. "I think surfing is kind of like painting a picture," she said. Each unique wave is "like a big open canvas. You can do whatever you want. That's what's so fun — you just feel so free."
To learn more, visit teamusa.org. The Tokyo Olympics begin next summer on NBC.