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Surfing

Surfer Caroline Marks could become the face of women’s surfing if she can hit a sick wave at the Olympics

When surfer Caroline Marks imagines the perfect wave, she can see the water slowly starting to swell, rising to about six feet high. It’s ripe for carving and sharp turns.

“Like super rippable,” she said.

It’s big enough for her to barrel — riding through a cascading tunnel of water — but also easy to navigate, allowing Marks to build speed and use the wave lip like a ramp, launching her and her board into the air for twirling tricks. The mere idea of this mythical wave makes her smile.

Marks, 19, spends hours in the water every day, waiting for the perfect wave. She will do her best to catch one at the Tokyo Games, where surfing will make its Olympic debut and Marks is poised to make a big splash. As the sport edges into mainstream acceptance, Marks is expected to emerge as the face of women’s surfing for years to come.

Easygoing and affable away from the water, Marks can be downright vicious on her board. Already a prodigy of sorts in the surfing community, she’s a podium contender in Tokyo because she surfs with no limits. She studies the advanced tricks from the men’s side of the sport and attacks each swell with ferocity. If the wave seems a bit like a bucking bull, Marks has it tamed and under her control.

“She’s had that confidence from a young age,” says Brett Simpson, head coach of the four-person U.S. surfing team. “She’s just carried that up the ranks. She’s confident in big situations and doesn’t seem to be fazed by anyone or anything.”

Surfing at the Olympics

In Tokyo, surfers will catch as many waves as possible in a 30-minute window. Judges will score each ride, but only a surfer’s top two will count toward a final score. Top competitors will showcase their power and style by performing difficult maneuvers on a high-quality wave.

The sport is unlike anything else at the Olympics. The competition venue constantly changes. Each surfer experiences different conditions and has different opportunities. A shift in the wind direction can alter an entire event. Imagine a baseball diamond morphing between innings or a soccer pitch shifting at halftime, emerging pointed in a different direction.

Judging
Surfing

Organizers have a window set aside for the Olympic competition and will wait for optimal conditions before sending the athletes into the water.

In Tokyo, surfers will catch as many waves as possible in a 30-minute window.

While multiple athletes will surf in the same heat, only one is able to take a wave.

Judges will score each ride, but only a surfer’s top two will count toward a final score. The final rounds feature a head-to-head format, with the top surfer advancing.

Judges are studying each surfer’s style on the board — her speed, power and flow — but also are taking into account the difficulty of the ride; the way a surfer strings together tricks, turns and maneuvers; and the way each pushes the sport’s boundaries.

“A perfect ride is a 10-point wave and surfing,” said Mike Parsons, a legendary surfer and Marks’s personal coach. “Normally when you see a 10-point score, a surfer will perform a number of really difficult maneuvers on a really quality wave. So half of the battle is finding the right wave.”

The
tricks

On her board, Marks often relies on muscle memory. Having her explain her biggest, baddest tricks is like asking her to describe her breathing.

“I don’t know; you just kind of do it,” she says.

Parsons has seen enough surfers to appreciate the mechanics. Marks’s leg strength and low center of gravity allow her to cut through the waves. She naturally knows how to shift her weight and shuffle her feet on the board. She uses her legs to pump on her board and generate speed on the wave. That gives her power entering a turn or shooting off the wave lip and into the air.

Marks is perhaps the most powerful female surfer, and her sharp backside turns have lit up the tour. Surfing with her back facing the wave, Marks edges toward the pocket — close to where the water breaks and spills over. This is where the wave is also the steepest and Marks can rip off powerful backside turns, spraying a wall of ocean water into the air before continuing her ride. She’s so quick that she often can reel off two or three in a row, which allows her to stack up big points on a small section of a wave.

A quick word on lingo

While most Olympic sports have their own lexicons, surfing sometimes feels like its own language.

Gnarly A big wave, a well-executed trick or anything that’s extreme

Mushy A weak wave

Rippable A desirable wave

Eggy A way to describe a subpar or unseasoned rider

Grom/Grommet A young surfer

Super-dialed Equipment must be super-dialed

Siiiick A good wave, a nice meal or a pleasant day all could qualify

Goofy-footed Someone whose right foot is toward the front of the board and left foot is back

Turns have varying degrees of difficulty, and Marks’s tricks include backside blow tails, tail slides and off-the-lip turns, in which she will ride vertically to the top of the wave before sharply changing directions and manipulating the board by shifting her weight, repositioning her feet and powerfully twisting her body.

“It’s those subtle movements,” Parsons said, “and linking them and timing them.”

Surfing frontside — meaning Marks is facing the wave — she can pull off large carving turns, but this is also where she might be on the lookout for aerial possibilities — midair tricks that are much more common and complex among male competitors.

In recent years, women’s surfing has been progressing at a lightning-fast rate. No longer limited to style and grace, today’s female surfers bring power, speed and acrobatics. Both American competitors — Marks and Hawaii native Carissa Moore, a four-time world champion — will be seeking air to impress judges in Tokyo, if the waves allow.

If Marks can pull off her frontside air reverse — a trick in which she ejects off the wave and spins 180 degrees, completing the full rotation upon landing — she just might land on the Olympic medal podium.

Caroline
Marks

Marks grew up around the water in Melbourne Beach, Fla., in an area that has produced some great surfers — Kelly Slater among them — but no one confuses the wave breaks with those in Hawaii or along the California coast. Marks’s first love was competitive horseback riding. It wasn’t until she was 11 and won a national surf contest that she focused on the sport. She was pushed by her three older brothers on and off the water, often to the point of tears.

“They definitely give me a lot of constructive criticism,” she said with a laugh.

When did you get hooked on surfing?

Caroline Marks

My first wave was when I was like 3, but I used to horseback ride, so I rode till I was about 7 or 8 years old, but then I knew I wanted to be a professional surfer when I was 11. I was like, “This is exactly what I want to do.”

Walk me through the moment you realized you qualified for the Olympics.

Caroline Marks

What is next for you?

Caroline Marks

I feel like, you know, I am so young right now, and I am learning so much. I feel like a sponge just absorbing every day. I am learning so much, and whether it’s what Mike tells me or my peers, it’s so fun, and I am excited to keep going.

Parsons was a world-renowned big-wave surfer who has dipped his board in every corner of the sport. He first met Marks when she was all of 13. “I was blown away with her style,” Parsons said, “how natural she looked on the wave.”

The Marks family relocated to California to be closer to Parsons and the West Coast waves. Everyone on the beach or on their boards saw that Marks was different. She understands the water, commands her board with such power and constantly tries new things. And she’s doing everything on her own schedule.

She turned pro at 13. Her five-year goal to make the world tour? That took six months, and at 15 she was the youngest surfer — male or female — to qualify for the sport’s top circuit. The next year, she won rookie of the year honors. And at 17, Marks set her sights on her first tour win. Instead she got two, topping the vets with way more experience and seasoning. Her hopes to earn a spot in the Olympics? She managed that on her first try, qualifying for Team USA in December 2019.

The
Olympics

Professional surfers live a nomadic, unusual lifestyle; the very best trot across the globe in search of the gnarliest waves. They have a pretty good idea of what waves they will find where, and Marks is excited to compete in Japan. The waves at Tsurigasaki Beach, located less than 50 miles from Tokyo, are smaller and similar to the ones she rides daily in Southern California, especially the rippable sets at Trestles Beach, not far from her San Clemente home.

Tokyo will be hot, and the smaller waves will require some work. To prepare for all conditions, Marks does daily dry-land workouts and usually hits the water for two surf sessions. Right after, she likes studying video of her rides, dissecting her moves and analyzing her mechanics.

The year-long Olympic postponement gave her more time to hone her craft. With competitions shuttered, the World Surf League season canceled and travel limited last year, Marks spent months riding the Tokyo-like waves around San Clemente. To fine-tune tricks, she visited a wave pool in Waco, Tex., where technology can mimic the anticipated Olympic waves and provide conditions that are consistent, allowing a surfer to get a steady stream of repetitions.

Tokyo’s waves ultimately will decide whether Marks and her fellow surfers will get a chance to showcase all of their skills. They’re anticipating waves that are waist-high or slightly bigger. Marks might not see the perfect wave this summer, but she still will try to dazzle a global audience that might be tuning in to watch surfing for the first time.

“It creates much more of a show when the ocean comes to the party,” Simpson said. “We’re not necessarily expecting great surf. Obviously, if we get it, we’ll be stoked. But ultimately it’s going to be a lot of creating your own maneuvers and generating your own speed, which I feel Caroline’s very ready for.”

About this story

Additional development by Lo Benichou and Seth Blanchard. Additional production by Steve Johnson. Editing by Elite Truong, Virginia Singarayar, Ann Gerhart, Matthew Rennie, Chiqui Esteban, Courtney Kan and Monica Ulmanu.

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Rick Maese is a sports features writer for The Washington Post. He has written about the NFL since joining The Post in 2009, including three seasons as beat writer for the Washington Redskins.
Madison Walls is a designer at The Washington Post with a focus on developing innovative and immersive storytelling. She joined The Post in 2018 after graduating from UNC Chapel Hill.
Artur Galocha is a graphics reporter focusing on Sports. Before joining The Washington Post in December 2020, he was a graphics editor at El País (Spain).
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Ashleigh Joplin is an award-winning video journalist for The Washington Post. Her team specializes in live political coverage and breaking news events.