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How Caroline Marks capitalized on a ‘special connection with the ocean’ to win her first surfing world title

By George Ramsay, CNN

(CNN) — Lower Trestles, the famed surfing spot in Southern California, is fast becoming a happy hunting ground in the career of American Caroline Marks.

It was there that Marks made her debut on the World Surf League’s Championship Tour in 2015 as a 13-year-old, becoming the youngest person ever to compete in the sport’s elite competition thanks to a wild card entry.

Eight years later, almost to the day, Marks was lauded as a first-time world champion at the same location, defeating the same surfers – multiple world titles holders Carissa Moore and Tyler Wright – that she had lost against in 2015.

“It was kind of like a crazy full circle moment,” Marks tells CNN Sport.

The 21-year-old Florida native used to idolize Moore growing up, and it seemed fitting that she should capture her first world title by defeating a hero-turned-rival at the climax of the surfing season.

An explosive goofy-footer – meaning she surfs with her right foot forward – Marks carved and turned her way to victory against Moore in dominant style, wrapping up the first two heats – and thus the world title – in the best-of-three contest.

With that, she completed her evolution from star-struck teen to first-time champion.

“I feel like I had a special connection with the ocean already that day, and my board felt amazing,” says Marks.

“I was just in such like a flow state … I have had that feeling before for other wins and stuff, but there was just something about the other day that was extra magical, I think because there was so much on the line.”

Under the current format, the men’s and women’s Championship Tours are decided with a finals event, which sees the top-five-ranked surfers from the course of the season face off across four matches.

Marks, ranked No. 3 heading into the finals, defeated Caitlin Simmers and Wright before besting the top-ranked Moore in the decisive match.

The format, introduced in 2021, is a topic of contention. Moore’s sister, Cayla, recently argued that it doesn’t reward consistency across the whole season, and surfing great Kelly Slater, while acknowledging that Marks “was the best on the day,” labeled Moore “the most complete surfer on the women’s tour” at the end of the competition.

But for Marks, winning the world title was the culmination of years of hard work, a goal that had formed in her mind even before she became the youngest surfer to qualify for the Championship Tour aged 15.

“I think this is the best I’ve ever surfed in my life, consistently putting up really good performances,” says Marks. “I feel as strong as I’ve ever been and as solid as I’ve ever been.

“I’ve done a lot of work on my mental game specifically the last year – just making my mind really strong. Physically, I’ve always felt like I was going to get there, but I think mentally that’s also another thing that’s really important – being calm under those really high-pressure situations.”

‘Constructive criticism’

Marks, the third of six siblings, grew up in the Florida town of Melbourne Beach. Despite watching her older brothers surf – and having rolling waves right on the doorstep of her family home – it was horseback riding that first ignited her love of competition.

Soon, however, the allure of the ocean proved too strong, and by the age of nine or 10, Marks had formed a daily habit of making the short walk from her house to the beach with her brothers.

“We just spent hours and hours and hours in the water, and I just remember falling in love with it,” she recalls.

“I’d come home crying a few days from the constructive criticism my brothers would give me, but it made me stronger. It got me to this point, so it’s all worth it.”

As soon as she started competing, Marks enjoyed an accelerated rise to the top of the sport, ripping through junior national events and impressing onlookers with her now-celebrated backhand turns.

“She’s got this incredible strength in her legs, and this low center of gravity [as if] she’s just stuck to her board,” coach and former professional surfer Mike Parsons has said.

“She’s doing strong turns and she’s throwing lots of spray in the air. They’re really hard to do and she can turn in a part of the wave that other surfers can’t because she’s so strong.”

Tough times ‘make you or break you’

Marks hasn’t always had an easy ride during her six years on the Championship Tour. Teenage stardom inevitably saw her spotlighted and scrutinized, attracting a fair share of negative commentary on social media.

“I think with that many eyes on you, there’s always going to be people that are going to not say such nice things,” she says.

“And I think when I first qualified, a lot of people were disagreeing, saying stuff about my parents because I was so young and all that and maybe doubting me. I don’t know, it was just not that cool.

“But now, I don’t even really read comments, to be honest. I kind of do me, focus on me, and don’t really care about what other people say.”

Just last year, the rigors and demands of pro surfing – which Marks, despite her young age, had already been swept up in for several years – began to accumulate.

She took an extended break from the tour to “deal with some recurring medical and health issues” and missed out on qualifying for the WSL Finals after her return. But this year’s world title, Marks says, was even more satisfying after last season’s four-month absence from competitions.

“I was going through a bit of a tough time,” she explains. “That all made this moment 10 million times more special. I also think that moment helped me get to this point; getting over some barriers and some hard times made me so much stronger.

“I feel like when you go through a tough time, it either makes or breaks you. I think the fact that I was able to come back stronger from that … It’s really, really cool to look back on.”

Next season will be Marks’ first as a defending champion. She’ll be gunning for the same goal of winning the world title – “and the year after and the year after and the year after” – but also has the prospect of the 2024 Paris Olympics in the middle of the season.

The youngest competitor in the field when she finished fourth at the Tokyo Games two years ago, Marks has higher ambitions in Tahiti – where the surfing competition will take place – this time around.

To win gold, she will have to master the fearsome Teahupoo break, a barrelling mass of water regarded as one of the heaviest, most demanding waves in the world.

“The world title to me was my biggest goal ever,” says Marks, who won the Tahiti Pro event in August. “And now that surfing’s in the Olympics and I’ve got the world title, I think the next thing is I would obviously love to win a gold medal, [that] would be really special.”

Right now, she is anticipating a year of less pressure having fulfilled her long-held goal of claiming the world title. That should help Marks to focus on her reasons for becoming a professional surfer in the first place.

“Surfing is so fun; it genuinely brings me joy, and that’s why I do it,” she says. “I’m so lucky that I’m able to do it as my career. Whatever path you choose in life, just make sure it brings you happiness and joy and shoot for the stars.”

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