© Olivia Doan / Red Bull Content Pool
In “That’s Caroline,” a Tight-Knit Family Soars, Together
New documentary short pulls the curtain back on Caroline Marks’s family and their role in her rise to surfing’s top ranks.
Among the cognoscenti, Caroline Marks’s meteoric ascent is the stuff of surf legend: she started surfing at the relatively ripe age of 11 and began sweeping national competitions almost immediately. She became the youngest person ever to qualify for the Championship Tour, the sport’s top-tier circuit, at 15. And she became one of the first four American surfers ever to qualify for the Olympics—at 17.
But behind all of it were seven people dedicated to her joy and success: her mom, her dad, her four brothers and her little sister.
It’s Marks’s family that figures biggest in Red Bull’s new film, “That’s Caroline.” The short documentary is a portrait of Marks that starts with her early days in Melbourne, Florida, and culminates with her rise to the upper echelon of her milieu. With narration by her older brother, Luke, Marks’s story unfurls through his lens.
That point of view lends a warmth to the film, which is playful, self-aware and brimming with youth and energy—much like the subject herself. “That’s Caroline”’s super-meta script is a frequent reminder of Marks’s age (19) and personality (wildly, enviously, upbeat). The film also offers a brief glimpse of the Caroline that existed before surfing became her life.
The Marks family lived in what appears to be a kid nirvana (dirt ramps, trampoline, swing set, pool), with the massive bonus of the beach across the street. But it was horse stables that called to Caroline. She was a competitive rider for most her childhood and while she liked the ocean, it was the ring—not the water—that consumed her. As she saddled up, her older brothers paddled out together, day after day. Luke was emerging as a star, gaining sponsors along the way. It was the boys’ passion for surfing, however, that led her into the waves.
“It gives me the goosebumps talking about it,” Marks says, over the phone. “I just really, really wanted to impress my brothers and I really wanted them to think that I was cool and accept me. They thought surfing was the coolest thing ever, so I was like, 'Well, I have to be really good at something that they think is cool.’”
In “That’s Caroline,” Marks’s father, Darren, describes her shift from horses to surfboards as a flip of a switch. And in fact, Marks remembers the moment it happened. She was 11 and had just won her first national contest, coming out of nowhere like a dark horse (so to speak) to take down a more seasoned field of competitors.
“The feeling I got I was so incredible, I was on top of the world and it felt so right,” she says. “It just felt right. That's like the best way I can explain it. I mean I literally wake up in the morning I think about surfing. All day I think about surfing. I go to bed thinking about surfing. I think that was my click moment right there, that's when I was like, ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life and I never want to stop.’”
Marks, of course, didn’t stop. She kept winning contests, and kept beating surfers with more years than her and much more time in the water. As it turned out, that would serve her well in the next phase of her career.
Underpinning Marks’s story is the apparent ease with which she’s flown so high, so fast. When she qualified for the CT well before she expected, it was almost like a freight train that couldn’t be stopped. In her own words, Marks described her mindset—both in major competitions and the CT—as “oblivious” to what she was getting herself into. Her parents, however, needed to think things over.
In “That’s Caroline,” the elder Marks admit that they were thrilled for their daughter and her rapid rise. Yet, they were also aware of the pressures that came with it—and the spotlight that would be on her. Plus, the elite tour is long, and far afield: a typical year has 10-11 contests, over nearly 11 months, in places from France to Fiji (in 2021, that season has been compressed). Athletes live out of suitcases and board bags, and barely stop at home. Marks’s parents wanted to support her, but to protect her, too.
“I think they were just concerned about me, mentally,” says Marks. “Being away from them that much and taking all that pressure and surfing against the big dogs. I mean, I qualified at 15. You're still like a child—I still feel like one now. I just turned 19 and I'm looking back at when I was 15 and thinking, ‘holy cow.’ What really helped me is not really thinking about it all—I was going into it blindfolded, I didn't know what to expect.”
“I'd only been to like two of the spots and all the 10 spots on the tour,” she continues. “And [I] thought, ‘This is going to be super fun. I'm going to try not to put any pressure on myself,’ which is hard because I expect so much of myself. But what helped me was having my family and my coach saying, 'You have nothing to lose. These girls are 10-plus years older than you. They don't want to lose to a 15-year-old, you have everything to gain.’ Having that mindset helped me get through it.”
That attitude has continued to buoy Marks through the realities of tour life. She is, incredibly, still taking down fellow titans who are, indeed, up to a decade older than she is. In 2019, she finished the season as No. 2 in the world, just behind four-time World Champion Carissa Moore.
But not every contest is a win, and not every day on the road is dreamy. In both cases, her family and her outlook are arguably keys to her success (not to mention preternatural talent and an impressive work ethic). Marks calls her family her “feel-good” people, and it’s evident on screen and in conversation. In her new film, her family is there for the last event of the season, ready on the cliffs of Honolua Bay with hugs and cheers.
“All this, everything that I'm doing – every every win that I have or every big moment I have in my career,” she says, “what makes it so special is that I get to share it with them.”
Similarly, at Australia’s Snapper Rocks in 2019, when Marks became the first woman to earn equal pay for a contest win, it was her brother to whom she ran. “I just broke down and started crying,” she remembers. “I got into surfing because of him and the reason why I'm at where I'm at is him, he plays a huge part in that. I'm getting emotional just talking about it.”
Marks is also cognizant of the sacrifice that her family made for her career. As her surfing shifted into high-gear, her parents moved the whole clan—all eight of them—from Melbourne, Florida, to San Clemente, California. The town is a hot spot for both world-class waves and the surf industry, allowing her to be closer to the hub of the sport.
As she embarks on the 2021 tour, Marks still keeps her family and the grounding they give her as close as possible. “That’s Caroline” is a snappy portrayal of a phenomenally gifted, motivated and determined athlete who’s raising the bar and having fun in the process. But it’s also a warm-hearted ode to family, and the power of unconditional support coupled with a go-for-it mindset.
“Ultimately, my parents have always had such a great balance with letting me make my decisions and do what I want and saying, 'We'll support you. We love you. It's going to be a wild ride.,’” Marks says. “I'm already in my third year on the tour and it's been the best thing ever. I never want to stop.”