Should A (Very) Young Surfer Accept A CT Bid Just Because They’ve Earned It?
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Photo by Jimmy Wilson

Should A (Very) Young Surfer Accept A CT Bid Just Because They’ve Earned It?

We asked Taj Burrow and Caroline Marks about Caity Simmers’ (potentially) big decision. 

Words by Michael Ciaramella

Last weekend, Caity Simmers not only won, but dominated, the women’s US Open of surfing…at 15 years old

En route to victory, Caity defeated tour vets nearly twice her age. Courtney Conlogue found herself on the wrong side of Caity’s crusade in the semifinals, where the teenager not only out-surfed but also out-strategized the former World Title contender. It was astonishing. 

The US Open is one of just four events that will determine the six female Championship Tour qualifiers for 2022. Winning this event has catapulted Caity Simmers straight to second on the rankings with 10,000-odd points. While we can’t see the future, history tells us the women’s qualifying mark will be around 13,000 – 16,000 points, meaning Caity only needs a couple decent results in the coming events to secure herself a spot on the 2022 Tour. 

…If she wants it, that is. 

After winning the US Open, Caity said in her post-heat address, “I’m not trying to qualify.”

The conversation then went in a different direction, leaving viewers to wonder what exactly Caity meant. Surfers have qualified “by accident” before — Julian Wilson is one example — but that’s not to say they weren’t happy to do it. In Caity’s case, we couldn’t tell if she meant, “I’m not putting all my time and effort into qualifying, but if it happens, that’s awesome,” or, “I have no interest in qualifying right now.” 

Rather than ask a 15-year-old to make a life-altering, childhood-truncating decision on the spot, I decided to reach out to two surfers who (at the time they did so) were the youngest ever CT qualifiers for their respective genders — Taj Burrow and Caroline Marks. 

Taj Burrow qualified for the first time when he was just 17 years old. He famously declined the offer (the only surfer ever to do this, as far as we’re aware) so that he could develop more and perhaps enjoy the waning years of his childhood. He qualified again one year later and joined the tour for an impressive 21 seasons. 

I asked Taj whether he’s happy he made that decision and what his advice to Caity might be, assuming she qualifies this year. Here’s his response:

I wouldn’t change a thing about declining my place on tour. I was 17 and didn’t feel ready to commit to the big boys’ tour yet. 

I think Caity should absolutely just cruise and enjoy being a 15-year-old. There’s no need to rush into the tour and she’s surfing so good she will qualify whenever she wishes. The tour looks like a shit fight anyway, with limited events and difficult travel restrictions. I’d say she should just enjoy surfing, let the world sort its shit out, and do whatever makes her happy. Her career will fall into place no matter what. 

Caroline Marks at the 2019 Roxy Pro France. Photo of by Damien Poullenot/WSL

Caroline Marks qualified at 15 years old and accepted the slot, starting her CT career just after her 16th birthday. I asked her the same questions that I’d posed to Taj. Here’s her response:

You definitely sacrifice part of your childhood by entering the Tour at 16, but for me, it was totally worth it. I don’t regret entering the Tour that early. It’s always been my dream and main focus to compete on the CT, so it was a dream come true.

There were times in my rookie year when I felt like a bit of an outsider, but that’s because I didn’t graduate to the CT with any of my peers. All the other women on tour qualified alongside girls they’d competed with their entire lives, so it felt like a natural progression. But after that first year, it was really normal. I also had a great support system with my family, Mike Parsons, and Lakey, which helped a ton. 

I don’t know Caity super well on a personal level, and I don’t think I’m in a position to give her advice, but she surfs amazing, and I’d love to see her on tour someday soon

So, two very different responses to a similar situation. Caroline knew she could handle surfing against the world’s best at a very young age, whereas Taj wasn’t sure he wanted to (just yet). 

The point is, both Taj and Caroline made the best decision for themselves in the moment. We’re certain Caity will too. Hopefully, their accounts help in some way, or at the very least, don’t confuse her situation further. 

But hey, having to decide whether or not you want to accept a CT slot at 16 is a good problem to have, right?

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