While most teenagers spend their formative years fighting with their parents and trying to pass high school chemistry, Caroline Marks had other plans. In forgoing the traditional adolescent experience to pursue a competitive surfing career, Marks has been able to make a name for herself in the male-dominated sport. 

In the third episode of the My New Favorite Olympian podcast (below), Marks details her whirlwind rise to the top of women’s surfing and the body positivity advocacy work she assumed on the way.

At age 19, Marks is making her Olympic debut with her eyes set on gold. When thinking back 16 years to when she first hopped on a surfboard at age 3, no one is surprised at how quickly she has risen to success. Marks’ ardor for surfing spurred from a desire to impress her five siblings, many of whom are fellow surfers, even as a toddler. Caroline’s mother, Sarah Marks, concurred, “She wanted to be them so bad and they were so brutal to her.” 

The Florida native’s competitive edge became clear when she won the Surfing America USA Championships at age 11, beating the so-called stars from California and Hawaii. Shortly after, the Marks family relocated to California to help Caroline become the youngest surfer to qualify for the World Surf League Championship Tour. Caroline was just getting started, but with her newfound global platform came the harsh reality of fame. 

She explained, “I think you at 15, you know, you kind of become this little girl that becomes a woman and your body’s changing and all these things are happening and hormones and things like that. And you’re kind of like, whoa, what’s going on?” 

What’s going on was that Caroline was receiving commentary from the public about her body, and a lot of it. Social media trolls began sexualizing her pubescent body. Caroline’s DMs were flooded with insensitive comments and criticism that her male peers were exempt from. Gender dynamics in surfing are still prevalent, so it was a historic feat when Marks became the first female surfer to receive equal prize money as her male counterpart upon winning a WSL event at age 17.

Caroline’s experience is unfortunately all too common for girls her age, and she decided to take a step back from social media to distance herself from the hate. 

“I think that [not looking at comments] was like the first step for me, I used to kind of read everything and I was like, no, I don’t care what other people think,” she said.

Shortly after her 18th birthday, Caroline participated in what she calls “the coolest shoot I have ever done”: the 2020 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. The photoshoot was transformational in allowing Caroline to feel proud of her athletic figure. As she looks to the future, Marks wants to change the narrative around body positivity so that all girls can feel confident in their own skin.

As she poignantly said, “Everyone comes in different shapes and sizes. I think just owning it and loving yourself and doing it makes you feel good.”

"My New Favorite Olympian" is the third season of the Sports Uncovered podcast from NBC Sports. New episodes drop every Wednesday and will introduce you to the most inspiring members of Team USA and the issues they champion. The series is hosted by Olympic trailblazer Ibtihaj Muhammad and NBCLX storyteller Ngozi Ekeledo.