The 16-year-old opens up about her crazy career, how she handles the pressure, and who inspires her most.
If you had told Caroline Marks as a little girl that she'd grow up to be the youngest person to ever qualify for the Women's Championship Tour (aka the Grand Slam of surfing), she wouldn't have believed you.
Growing up, surfing was something Marks' brothers were good at. It just wasn't her ~thing~. Her sport, at the time, was barrel racing—a rodeo event where riders attempt to complete a cloverleaf pattern around preset barrels in the fastest time. (Yep, that's actually a thing. And, to be fair, is just as badass as surfing.)
"It's pretty random going from horseback riding to surfing," Marks tells Shape. "But everyone in my family loved to surf and when I turned 8, my brothers felt like it was time to show me the ropes." (Read our 14 surfing tips for first-timers—with GIFs!)
Marks' love for riding waves was pretty much instant. "I just enjoyed it so much and it felt so natural," she says. Not only was she a quick learner, but she also got better and better with each passing day. Before long, her parents started putting her in competitions and she started winning—a lot.
How She Became a Pro Surfer
In 2013, Marks had just turned 11 when she dominated the Atlantic Surfing Championships, winning in the Girls' Under 16, 14, and 12 categories. Thanks to her almost unbelievable achievements, she became the youngest person to ever make the USA Surf Team.
At that point, her parents realized that she had more potential than they could have ever imagined, and the entire family made Marks' surfing their main focus. The following year, Marks and her family began splitting their time between their home in Florida and San Clemente, California, where she immersed herself in the surfing world, notching several National Scholastic Surfing Association (NSSA) titles in the girls' and women's divisions. By the time she turned 15, Marks had two Vans U.S. Open Pro Junior titles, and the International Surfing Association (ISA) World Title under her belt. Then, in 2017, she became the youngest person (male or female) to ever qualify for the World Championship Tour—proving that, despite her age, she was more than ready to go pro.
"I definitely didn't think it was going to happen so quickly. I have to pinch myself sometimes to remember how lucky I am," says Marks. "It's so cool being here at such a young age, so I'm just trying to absorb everything and learn as much as I can." (Speaking of young, badass athletes, check out 20-year-old rock climber Margo Hayes.)
While Marks might seem like the underdog, there's no doubt in her mind that she's earned the right to be this far along in the competition. "Now that I've made the tour, I know it's exactly where I'm supposed to be," she says. "I feel like I've matured a lot this past year as an athlete and that's been reflected in my surfing—mostly because you have to if this is where you want to be."
Handling the Pressure of a World Tour
"When I found out I was going on tour, I was shocked and excited, but also realized my life was about to change completely," Marks says.
Going on tour means Marks will spend the coming year alongside 16 of the world's best professional surfers competing in 10 events all around the world. "Because I'm so young, my family will have to go on tour with me, which is an added pressure in and of itself," she says. "They're sacrificing so much, so obviously I want to do my best and make them proud."
When she's not competing, Marks will continue her training and work on fine-tuning her skills. "I try to work out every day and surf twice a day when I'm not competing," she says. "Training itself usually involves endurance drills that work me to the point of exhaustion and teach me to push past the feeling of wanting to give up. Unfortunately, when you're surfing and feeling fatigued, there's no stopping and taking a break. These kinds of drills really help me give it my all when I'm out there." (Check out our surf-inspired exercises to sculpt lean muscle.)
Sounds like a lot to put on a 16-year-old's plate, right? Marks is surprisingly chill about it: "Before the start of the year, I sat down with my mom, dad, and coach and they said, 'Look, there shouldn't be any pressure because you're so young,'" she says. "They told me not to base my happiness off of my results because I'm lucky to have even gotten this opportunity as a learning experience."
She's taken that advice to heart and is implementing it in every way. "I realized that, for me, this isn't a sprint. It's a marathon," she says. "I have so many people supporting me and encouraging me to just go out there and have some fun—and that's exactly what I'm doing."
What It's Like to Bond with Other Surf Legends
Ahead of the 2018 World Surfing League (WSL) Championship Tour, Marks had the unique opportunity to learn tricks of the trade firsthand from Carissa Moore, the youngest WSL-title winner ever. Through a partnership with Red Bull, Marks visited Moore on her home island of Oahu, where the veteran surfer helped her prepare for her tour debut. Together, they chased waves up and down the island that's appropriately nicknamed "The Gathering Place." (Related: How Women's World Surf League Champion Carissa Moore Rebuilt Her Confidence After Body-Shaming)
"Carissa is such an amazing person," Marks says. "I grew up idolizing her so it was amazing getting to know her and asking a bunch of questions."
What took Marks by surprise was Moore's humbleness and carefree attitude, even though she's a world-renowned athlete. "When you're around her, you'd never know she's a three-time world champ," Marks says. "She's proof that you don't have to walk around with a chip on your shoulder wherever you go just because you're successful. It's possible to be a nice person and totally normal, which was a huge realization and life lesson for me."
Now, Marks herself has become a role model for so many young girls. As she heads into the WCT, she doesn't take that responsibility lightly. "People always ask me what I like to do for fun. For me, surfing is the most fun thing in the world," she says. "So if nothing else, I'd want other girls and up-and-comers to do what makes them happy and not settle for any less. Life is short and it's better to go through it doing what you love."