Throughout Carissa’s career her father, Chris, a former competitive swimmer, has been her guiding force, head coach, media guru and brand strategist. Along the way a few critics have questioned his role, noting that he’s been known to scold Carissa audibly after a blown heat and speculating whether Carissa’s nicegirl persona might not be somewhat of a contrivance cooked up by Chris and her sponsors’ media machines. But talking with Carissa, seeing her shy smile and hearing her singsong voice, it’s hard to imagine that she isn’t genuine. “My dad and I are such a good team, but I think a lot of people are overly critical of our relationship because they just see it in a competitive light,” she told the Surfline website after her world championship win. “He is hard on me, but he’s the person who has pushed me the most and he is the main reason I am where I am today—because he told me the truth and believed enough in me to push me.”
The bottom line: If Carissa and her dad have some sort of plot to rule women’s surfing, it’s working. She’s the undisputed top female surfer in the world at the youngest age ever, and there’s every reason to believe that it’s only the beginning. What’s more, she’s now backed by a trio of deep-pocketed mainstream sponsors— Nike, Target and Red Bull — that have brought her unprecedented marketing exposure (and reportedly unprecedented income) for a female surfer. While her official career contest winnings stand at around $300,000, her sponsorship deals are believed to be worth several times that.
Nike in particular has stepped up to sponsor an entire women’s contest for the first time, a welcome development on a tour that’s fallen on tough times amid the global economic mayhem. Since last year the women’s championship tour has been pared back to just seven events from an average of ten or more, with none scheduled in Hawai‘i for the first time in twenty years.
“Women’s surfing is struggling a bit,” Carissa acknowledges, “but I think it’s just going to take somebody who will think out of the box and market us the right way to hopefully bring back more events. Looking at the girls’ talent right now, they’re surfing at such a high level, and they all have great personalities, so it’s just about finding our little niche and making ourselves more exciting to watch.”
Once she won the world title, Carissa says, she experienced a bit of a down stretch after the high of ticking off a goal she’d been working toward essentially her whole life. “Have to be honest, a few weeks ago I was kinda depressed,” she wrote in her blog. “I was just in one of those weird funks, unmotivated and uninspired, just going thru the motions. … It’s been a time of transition for me. I have been doing a lot of thinking and asking myself: What do I want? Where do I want to go? Who do I want to be?” But the identity crisis has passed: Now she says she’s just excited about giving another world title a shot. “I just want to focus on putting on a good show every time I get in the water,” she says, “and I think the results will follow from there.”
And in the long term? Carissa hopes she’ll get to college at some point. “I’m loving traveling and surfing, and I’m just trying to soak it in for a while,” she says. “But at the end of the road, I’d love to settle down and be an elementary school teacher. I love little kids.” Now how sweet is that?