It’s the night of the SURFER magazine readers poll awards — the surfing world’s annual Big Night Out — and Carissa is rocking her inner pop star in an electric blue evening dress and sky-high heels. Earlier in the day she had tweeted: “Getting girlified! Walked into the salon barefoot and asked for a mani/pedi. Think I scared the lady a little…haha:/” Now she’s standing behind the podium accepting the award for favorite female surfer of 2011. “Hi guys,” she begins. “… Um, wow!”
Since she hit the world tour a couple of years ago, Carissa’s life has been an A-list athlete’s blur of travel, training, competition, photo trips, media interviews and promo events. Even with all that, she says, she’s never really thought of herself as a celebrity, although she admits she’s “loving the lifestyle, even if I’m a lot busier than I ever thought I was gonna be.”
Carissa grew up in Honolulu, attending Punahou School—alma mater of golf prodigy Michelle Wie, AOL titan Steve Case and reigning overall national champion Barack Obama. She loves to bake and to sing, with musical tastes running to the positive vibes of Jack Johnson and Colbie Caillat, unless she’s prepping to take down a heat, in which case it’s all about Eminem.
Carissa has been surfing longer than she can remember, first being pushed into waves by her parents in Waikiki and later perfecting her moves at Kewalos, a textbook townie hot-dog break. She started competing in “menehune” contests and landed her first sponsor by the time she was 7. By 8 she was nailing aerials and reverse moves that would have made a lot of old pros jealous. When she was 10 her parents split up, and surfing became “something I did with my dad, something we got to bond over,” she says. She recently found a letter she had written to her father at that time saying that she wanted to be world champ someday. “I’ve known that I wanted to be the best ever since I was little,” she says, “but it was really neat to go back and see that it was actually true.”
When competition started to really click for Carissa, it clicked big time. She began blowing away her peers — both girls and boys — and made the final of a world tour-level adult contest when she was just 11. By the time she was 14, she had won the most National Scholastic Surfing Association junior titles ever, taking a total of eleven division titles and sweeping the nationals three years in a row. At 16 she snagged her first major world tour win as a wild-card invitee at Hale‘iwa.
During her junior year in high school, Carissa began competing regularly on the international circuit, and by the following season she had qualified for the world championship Big Show. By that time she was being touted as the future of women’s surfing, a lot of pressure for a teenager. “I know there was a lot of hype and expectation, but I tried to just follow my own path and not really think about it too much,” she says. “I grew up with people who had so many different talents: athletics, academics, music and the arts. Everybody had something that was super special about them, so I really didn’t feel out of the ordinary at all.”
Golden girl that she is, school remained a priority as she juggled her rookie year on the championship tour and her senior year at Punahou. She even skipped a contest to attend graduation, even though she was in the running for the world title and knew it would cost her precious points. Still, she finished third overall and took Rookie of the Year honors.