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Melbourne Beach’s Caroline Marks qualifies for surfing’s first Olympics in Japan

17-year-old could become the youngest world champion this week

MAUI, UNITED STATES - DECEMBER 1: Caroline Marks of the United States will surf in Round 2 of the 2019 Lululemon Maui Pro after placing third in Heat 1 of Round 1 at Honolulu Bay on December 1, 2019 in Maui, United States. (Photo by Kelly Cestari/WSL via Getty Images) (2019 World Surf League)

A year ago, Caroline Marks got her driver's license. She'll need a plane this time.

And probably a Japanese dictionary.

Konnichiwa, Caroline.

The 17-year-old Melbourne Beach native will be one of two women representing the U.S. at the inaugural surfing competition at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in Japan, clinching that spot late Sunday in Maui, Hawaii, reports News 6 news partner Florida Today.

When No. 2-ranked Lakey Peterson was upset in Round 3 by former two-time world champion Tyler Wright (who was coming off of a lengthy injury) in the season-ending Lululemon Maui Pro, all Marks had to do was defeat Coco Ho, one of the most popular Hawaiian surfers, and did just that, winning 12.53-9.50.

"I don't know, I'm just trying to enjoy the best time of my life," Marks said. "I've got my whole family here; they came to the first event and I won that, and now they're here at the last event, so maybe they're my lucky charms."

Members of the U.S. Olympic Committee were on hand to present Marks with an official USA banner with her photo superimposed on Mount Fuji as the youngest American representative.

Marks, who came in ranked No. 3 on the World Surf League and still has the only chance to topple No. 1 Carissa Moore for the world title this week, didn’t waste time against Ho, dropping in on a huge takeoff for a 6.50 score. She was leading 12.53-3.93 with less than 18 minutes to go when Ho stepped into a picturesque barrel and matched Marks’ top wave of 6.50 to add a little pressure but couldn’t double up.

“I’m super proud of her, she’s handled it well,” said Marks’ father, Darren, who was at the beach with the family.

Moore, from Hawaii, earned the first Olympic spot about an hour earlier after winning her Round 3 heat, also getting presented an official American banner by members of the U.S. Olympic Committee.

It wasn't a great start to an otherwise memorable day for Marks, a second-year pro who this year claimed the historic first "equal pay" prize of $100,000 in the season-opening event at Gold Coast, Australia, and in late October matched that payday by winning in Portugal.

Marks finished last in her opening three-person heat Sunday, scoring a meager 5.10 total, falling to Macy Callaghan (8.00) and Nikki Van Dijk (5.83). It was the first time all year she had placed third in the first round.

Marks turned it on in Round 2, though, posting rides of 7.00 and 8.83 (at the final horn) to easily defeat Summer Macedo and Keely Andrew.

Marks, who won the only two Florida Pro events ever held at Sebastian Inlet, was the youngest world tour qualifier -- for men or women -- at the age of 15.

Now, she could become the youngest world champion if she can overtake Moore this week. They could meet in the semifinals.

Meanwhile, 10th-ranked Kelly Slater, 47, is in a battle with John John Florence (ranked eighth) for the second men’s spot on the U.S. Olympic team when they battle later this month at Hawaii’s Pipeline Masters. Kolohe Andino is ranked fifth on the world circuit and has virtually clinched the top spot.