In the trailer for That’s Caroline, the new documentary from Red Bull that chronicles young surfing phenom Caroline Marks’ rise, Marks, 19, says, “Going to homecoming or going to prom…all that stuff’s really cool, but if I’m missing it, I don’t really care. I’d rather travel across the world and get perfect waves and have fun with my friends.”
Indeed, having what might be considered a “normal” teenagehood was not in the cards for Marks as soon as she decided at the age of 10 that she was going to pursue a career in surfing.
That decision set off a chain reaction, prompting the Marks family—parents Darren and Sarah and siblings Luke, 22; Zach, 20; Jack, 16; Dawson, 13 and Victoria, 9—to relocate from Melbourne Beach, Florida, to San Clemente, California, in pursuit of Caroline’s dream.
But surfing wasn’t always a career path for Marks—in fact, it wasn’t always her top competitive sport. Sure, she was a beach bum through and through growing up on the Florida coast, catching her first wave around the age of three. “I’ve always loved being in the water, being at the beach, bodysurfing…I was always outdoors,” she told me.
Still, as they were growing up, surfing was her brother, Luke’s, sport; Caroline was a competitive horseback rider. “I thought that was his thing and horseback riding was my thing,” she said. “My sport was on the land and his was in the water.”
Marks began surfing again at the age of eight, and by 10 she could no longer deny the pull of the waves. (Given where she grew up, with a surf break across the street from her house, it would have been hard to.) Older brothers Luke and Zach kept her on her toes, forcing her to surf faster and better to keep up with them. It instilled Marks’ riding with a grit that is evident when you watch her on the Championship Tour today.
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Marks had gone to public school through fifth grade, but when she and her family relocated to California and when she turned pro at 13, she switched to homeschool. After all, it’s hard to have perfect attendance when you’re halfway across the world competing in a surf competition.
“I’m living my dream. I don’t have any FOMO,” Marks said, laughing. “I know I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.”
It’s hard to argue with Marks’ assessment. Life began to move quickly after she turned her attention back to surfing at the age of 10. The following year, she won the Under-12 Surfing America Prime, the U.S. top amateur title. At 13, she became the youngest competitor on the pro circuit.
Seventeen titles would follow, including back-to-back National Scholastic Surfing Association titles in 2014–2015, the 2015 and 2106 Vans U.S. Open Pro Junior Championships and the 2016 ISA Under-16 Championship.
In August 2016, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) approved the addition of surfing (as well as baseball/softball, karate, skateboarding and sports climbing) to the Olympic program for the Tokyo Games. Because all new disciplines added to the games must have events for men and women, women’s surfing, which had been building, was about to crest.
Marks broke out in 2018, her first year on the Championship Tour. She was named Rookie of The Year and finished with a world No. 7 ranking.
In September 2018, the World Surf League (WSL) announced equal prize money for men and women for WSL-controlled events beginning with the 2019 season. And on December 1, 2019, Marks, then 17, made history as she advanced to the quarterfinals of the Maui Pro, the WSL’s Women’s Championship Tour season-ender. Along with Carissa Moore, Marks provisionally clinched her spot on the U.S. Surfing Olympic team.
USA Surfing CEO Greg Cruse has said Team USA TISI was the hardest Olympic team in the world to make for women surfers. What did he mean by that? Well, to start, in December 2019, the top three surfers in the WSL rankings were all American—but only two surfers per gender can represent their nation at the Games.
“I had to get second in the world to make the Olympics,” Marks, who ultimately finished behind fellow American and surfing veteran Moore for the world title, said. American Lakey Peterson had come into the season finale at the Maui Pro ranked No. 2 in the world, but losing in the Round of 16 eliminated her from Olympic qualification.
“It was a massive day,” Marks said. “You work hard all year, and it all came down to one heat or one wave. If you get third in the world, which is so hard to do, you don’t get to go to the Olympics.”
That’s Caroline is about all of that—Marks’ journey from turning pro to being invited to the Championship Tour to rising up the world rankings and, eventually, punching her ticket to Tokyo. And its release Wednesday coincides with the official 100 Days Out mark to this summer’s Games.
But in some ways, it’s about none of that. At its core, the 21-minute film is about Caroline Marks, the sister, the daughter, the daredevil, the goofball, the friend. Packed with archival footage of Marks carving the waves as a child—in addition to horseback riding, zooming around on dirtbikes, and generally spending every waking moment outdoors—That’s Caroline is a window into what made Marks who she is today: a fierce competitor, a loyal friend, a loving sister and daughter…and a future Olympian.
“I don’t think I’ve ever put out something that’s not just a surf edit. There’s not even that much surfing in it,” Marks said.
“It’s me with my friends and with my family. It shows how I grew up, just a little surf rat from Florida. And it really shows what it was like qualifying for the Olympics. That was one of the biggest, if not the biggest, accomplishments in my career, and it’s captured on camera. It gives me chills talking about it. It means so much to me and I worked so hard to get there.”
And in another chills-inducing touch, in a nod to where it all began for the future Olympian, the documentary is narrated by Marks’ brother.
“He’s who got me into surfing,” Marks said. “He’s a huge reason I’m in the position I’m in now. When I won my first pro event on the Gold Coast, my whole family was there, and I ran through everyone and hugged my bother. I started crying, and I told him, ‘You’re the reason I’m here.’”