Caroline Marks wins world surfing title, Olympics berth

Story By Hillard Grossman/Florida Today, September 9

Caroline Marks looked California-stylish in her pink jersey and dark sunglasses Saturday in her first World Surf League’s Rip Curl Finals.

She’ll look much more fashionable in Team USA’s Stars & Stripes colors next year, when she represents America in the 2024 Olympics in Tahiti, and in the equally prestigious yellow jersey that now establishes her legacy in the sport with her first world championship at age 21.

The former Melbourne Beach resident, now living in San Clemente, Calif., just a 10-minute bike ride from Saturday’s event at the famed Lower Trestles wave break, produced a near-flawless exhibition of massive backhand snaps and sprays to convincingly win all four of her 35-minute pressure-filled heats, including a two-set sweep against five-time world champion Carissa Moore, 31, of Hawaii.

“This whole week has been magical,” said Marks, before being “chaired” off the beach by her brothers in a wild, celebratory scene.

Sometimes still carrying the “Super Grom” label because of her young age, Marks defeated Moore (who will again be her Olympic teammate) by scores of 17.10-14.97 and 14.60-13.53, capping a day in which she entered as the No. 3 seed in the stepladder finals.

“I was just in the flow today,” Marks said. “I had a special day with the ocean. … This is like my second home.”

Two big carrots were up for grabs in the third annual, season-ending Rip Curl Finals, and Marks decided to take a chomp out of the whole garden on a sun-splashed, winner-take-all day referred to as the “Super Bowl of Surfing” by seven-time women’s world champion Layne Beachley.

Marks, no doubt, felt right at home as a huge Florida flag flapped high above her family and friends, and an appearance by legendary surfer Lisa Andersen, of Ormond Beach, the last women’s world champion from Florida (1994-97), only added to her support.

“All the fans are great; the crowd was so loud and so cool,” Marks said. “Good vibes.”

Caroline Marks joins Space Coast surfing royalty

The youngest world tour qualifier in history — at age 15 after developing her skills at Sebastian Inlet — Marks becomes the third surfer from the Space Coast to capture a world title, joining Cocoa Beach’s Kelly Slater (11 times) and Satellite Beach’s CJ Hobgood, who won it in 2001.

She now joins the historic list of women’s world champions, led by eight-time champ Stephanie Gilmore, whom she recently defeated in Tahiti.

“It’s just a dream of mine to have my name on that (world champion) list,” Marks said. “This feels so good … I’m so emotional.

“I’m feeling really grateful,” she added. “I came in, (that) no matter what happens today, I have these amazing supporters, my family, and amazing sponsors. … There definitely will be a massive party after this.”

Marks, who finished second in the final rankings in 2019, began her day with a pressure-relieving triumph against rookie Caitlin Simmers of nearby Oceanside, 11.67-10.36 that clinched another berth in the Olympics, where she will be hoping to improve on her fourth-place finish in 2021, in Japan.

It was Marks’ fourth career win in five heats against Simmers, the latest just three weeks ago at the legendary wave break at Teahupo’o, on the French Polynesian island of Tahiti, where the Paris Olympics surfing event will take place July 27-30.

Just a couple of years ago, Simmers, 17, was surfing in Cocoa Beach, where she won the women’s pro title at the Beach ‘n Boards Fest. Shortly after, she qualified for the WSL tour at age 16, although she deferred her spot to Australian Molly Picklum, 20, whom she, ironically, defeated in Saturday’s opening heat, 15.17-12.17, with a huge 8.17 ride to rally for the victory.

Lisa Andersen, a four-time winner under the Association of Surfers Professionals banner, along with fellow Floridian Frieda Zamba (1984-86 and 1988), said she recalled the times she was hunting for a world title.

“I could feel the adrenaline and the rush what these surfers are going through,” she said as she watched the young phenoms battle.

After the win against Simmers, Marks generated even more energy against two-time world champion Tyler Wright, 29, of Australia, putting together scores of 9.07 and 8.33 with crowd-pleasing, massive backhand sprays to produce a 17.40-13.70 semifinal victory.

Marks was so flawless in that heat that her third-best score, a “throw-away” 7.43, was actually better than Wright’s best ride.

“I knew I had to bring it in that heat,” Marks said, respecting Wright’s powerful arsenal of maneuvers.

On the opening ride of the first heat of the best-of-three final, Moore uncharacteristically fell, opening the door for Marks to deliver three explosive sprays for an 8.67 first-wave score that was never matched.

In the clinching heat, Marks quickly answered Moore’s first ride (5.50) by connecting five strong, frothy turns for a 7.00 ride at the 15-minute mark. She wasn’t done yet, however.

Marks then delivered a powerful three-turn set of smooth, vertical snaps for a huge 7.60 score to grab a 14.60-12.43 lead, forcing Moore to get a 7.67 score with about 5 minutes to go. Her final chance, a two-turn combo, generated only a 6.60 score that clinched the title for the Florida native, who was born in Boca Raton before moving up the coast to Melbourne Beach.

It’s been an incredible six-month season for Marks, who also won two events earlier this year; finished second twice; pushed her career heat win percentage to better than 56%; and wrapped up the world championship under full-time coach Luke Egan, a former competitor on the men’s ASP circuit.

On the men’s side, Brazil’s Filipe Toledo defended his world title by sweeping past courageous Ethan Ewing, who injured his back just before the start of the Tahiti event last month.