Meet Caroline Marks, the surfing phenom with Olympic dreams

Caroline Marks is 17 and is a surfing whirlwind. She has taken her sport by storm, risen to third position on the World Surf League standings, has a shot to become the youngest world champion in history over the next week, and with the most refreshing kind of teenage excitement, says that going to the Olympics would be “totally rad.”

And yet, as surfing prepares to make its Games debut in Tokyo next summer as part of a major push by the International Olympic Committee to appeal to a younger audience, Marks is currently on the outside looking in.

Heading into the final event of the WSL’s Championship Tour, the Lululemon Maui Pro in Hawaii, Marks sits behind the top two riders — Carissa Moore and Lakey Peterson — in the standings. There is an American logjam at the summit; both Moore and Peterson are also from the United States. According to the rules for surfing’s Olympic bow, a maximum of two women can qualify from any country. Moore and Peterson, unless Marks can unseat them over the coming days, are in the catbird seat.

But teenage sports phenoms don’t get to the top by being frightened of disappointment, they do so by fearlessly chasing their dreams. Marks, hailing from Melbourne Beach, Fla. and now based in San Clemente, Calif., knows a triumph in Maui would get her to the Games, and depending on how Moore and Peterson finish, could also nab her a world title in the process. She’s won twice already this year, reached the podium six times from nine events, collected nearly $400,000 in prize money and immediately announced herself as a serious contender.

“I know what I have to do to be in the Olympics and I’m just super stoked about the whole thing,” Red Bull athlete Marks told me via telephone. “Surfing is such a unique sport and it’s so very exciting because every wave is different, and there are always some kind of last-minute heroics where someone is waiting for the right wave to get the win.

“We’re in this position where the top three in the world are all Americans, but there are only two places. That’s a tough situation, but it kind of makes it more exciting. Whoever gets there will have had to perform something special … and I’d love it if it was me.”

Surfing won its bid for inclusion on the Olympic schedule in 2015, when the IOC approved several applications – also adding skateboarding, karate and sport climbing, while bringing back baseball and softball.

The Olympic event will be held at Shidashita Beach in Chiba, just outside Tokyo, with a competition window spread over 16 days to ensure the best quality of surf conditions possible. On the men’s side, the possibility that surf legend Kelly Slater could qualify at the age of 48 adds genuine intrigue — Slater’s fate will be decided in December.

And despite the tense predicament the Olympic qualifying scenario has offered up for Marks, she can only find positives in the introduction of the sport to the Games.

“Surfing has only been great for me,” she added. “I love it so much and I decided when I was 11 that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I’m on the road maybe 11 out of every 12 months. I surf every day, twice a day, including competitions and surf trips. It’s a great life. And the more people get to see what surfing is all about, the better it is for everyone.”

Olympic exposure can work wonders for a sport. Beach volleyball was introduced at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 and is now one of the most sought-after tickets at any Games.

However the team shakes out, the American women’s surfing program is likely to get plenty of attention around Olympics time, whatever combination of Moore, Peterson and Marks gets to board the flight to Japan.

That trio has wielded full dominance over the international field on tour this season and are expected to do so again in Hawaii over the coming days. If you’re looking for a guaranteed American gold medal next summer, the women’s surfing event might be the closest thing to it.

If anything, for Moore, Peterson and Marks, getting to the Olympics might be the hardest part.

“Having the Olympics be a part of surfing is so new and no one really knows what to expect from it,” Marks said. “But knowing that the opportunity is there, and having put myself in a position to have a chance?

“That’s rad.”