In case you didn't already know, Zoe Benedetto has been absolutely ripping.
During freesurf sessions at home in Florida, her talent shows: smart wave selection, quick-twitch agility in between wave sections, and a powerful forehand and backhand equally sending spray skywards.
Over the last year, the 18-year-old has been ripping while wearing a jersey, too. She's hoisted the first-place trophy at the Cold Water Classic, Mike Martin Pro, Barbados Surf Pro, Coastal Edge ECSC Pro, and has notched several other high-performance finishes.
Not only is Zoe a bright spot when you talk about up-and-coming Florida surfers; she's a name to watch amongst the talent pool on the Qualifying Series, and even the Challenger Series. Just as we were writing this feature, Zoe earned an impressive semifinal result at the EDP Vissla Ericeira Pro in Portugal.
We sat down with her to talk about her formula for her recent success, who inspires her today, and the mystery surrounding why she seems to "thrive" in cold water despite being from Florida's warm waters. — Cash Lambert
Four contest wins over the span of a year: if you didn't know already, Floria's own Zoe Benedetto is absolutely ripping in and out of the contest jersey. Photo courtesy Athelo Group
American Surf Magazine: Let's talk about your recent QS wins, starting with the O'Neill Cold Water Classic in November of last year.
Zoe Benedetto: It was my first time to the Lane, which is a super special wave. I definitely clicked with it. At the contest, I had a good routine — I woke up early, surfed, took a break, and went back out again.
"I prioritized my freesurfs and stayed positive. That, plus having a good routine, really helped me win that contest."
You followed up that win with a victory at the Mike Martin Pro Surf Contest in April of 2023.
The Mike Martin Pro Surf Contest is always a fun contest. It’s New Smyrna, and you get a couple of peaks to yourself with no one out, just perfect fun wedges. It’s warm water, so nice and enjoyable. I love that contest, because there’s not any added pressure — there were no points or rankings on the line. It was nice to do a contest at home and without any added pressure and win.
Zoe collected $3,000 and a confidence boost with her win at the Mike Martin Pro. Photo: Stephanie Brown
In March, you won the Barbados Surf Pro Women’s — a QS 5,000. How special was that?
It was the best and biggest win of my career! Barbados has a special place in my heart. The people are so nice, the island is so beautiful. It’s in the Caribbean, which feels so close to home.
Soup Bowl is a hard wave, so, just like at the Lane in January, I just focused on prioritizing my freesurfs and staying positive.
Going into the contest, I was number 3, and the top 4 plus a wildcard made it into the Challenger Series. None of our spots had been confirmed yet. There was this added pressure going into that contest. I thought that if I made the Challenger Series, great, if not, I would have more time to train and get better at surfing.
The fact that I won a QS 5,000 was amazing, but what also made it amazing was that all my friends were there. The fact that I got my spot confirmed on the Challenger Series was icing on the cake.
Do you think the confidence you built by winning the Cold Water Classic and the Mike Martin Pro helped in Barbados?
Definitely! I was actually talking to my parents before the Cold Water Classic, because I wasn’t sure if I was going to do it. But it was a QS, it would give me more time in the water, and I had never surfed the Lane before, so I thought I might as well go.
My overall goal was to win a QS event, and after that win, I knew that I could do it again. Getting a win on the QS helps your confidence a lot, and helped me push my goals — I wanted to win at least a 3,000 after that.
It’s weird, because I actually do really well in cold water events. Barbados was my first warm water win on the QS.
Why do you think you do so well in cold water?
I have no idea! My parents and I were looking at my results, and I just seem to do so much better in cold water than in warm water.
"I thought to myself 'What the heck is going on?' I’m from Florida, I never surf in booties, but I thrive in them!"
I actually don’t think it's a coincidence. A lot of cold water waves are in my favor — right-hand points — so that’s probably the main factor.
The Coastal Edge ECSC Pro in Virginia Beach was another big win for you.
I hadn’t won on the East Coast since 2019, and this contest was a huge opportunity for me. It’s easy for anyone to say ‘win on your side of the coast’ ... we East Coasters want to do well when there's a contest on our side, so there’s always that added pressure.
Champ crowned in Virginia Beach. Photo by Andrew Nichols/World Surf League
"I traveled with the same crew that was with me in Barbados — Molly Tuschen, Coral Schuster, Reed Platenius, Ryan Huckabee, Dimitri Poulos, Kepa Mendia, Cannon Car. We’ve become a posse, and it helps. You want to take competition seriously, but you also want to have fun and distract yourself so that it’s not all about competition. Having them there really helped, and it was nice to get another win."
Let's talk about how you're staying fit for surf. What are you focusing on training wise?
I do body conditioning — normal workouts — and I’m big into stretching and recovery. My dad is a physical therapist, and he’s taught me a lot recovery and staying loose. I stretch after every workout and after every surf.
You heard it from Zoe: stretching and recovery are key for longevity. Photo courtesy Athelo Group
Nutrition and diet comes hand in hand with that.
Plus, the mental aspect of surfing is huge. Being one of the youngest competitors on the Challenger Series, it can get hard and it’s easy to get in your head. I’ve been working with my parents and a mental coach to help me stay positive and focus on the things in my surfing I can control.
"My overall goal right now is to be well rounded with good health brain and body wise."
You've been a duel athlete for a while, balancing surfing and soccer. Do you think there are advantages to doing multiple sports?
Being a duel athlete is one best things I've done! My parents always played a ton of sports, so they really instilled that in me. I played travel academy soccer until about 2 seasons ago; it just got too much with traveling for surfing. I told myself that I wouldn’t choose between them until I absolutely had to.
Surfing is an individual sport while soccer is a team sport, and doing both opens up your mind and forces you to think about strategy in different ways. Soccer has taught me good situational life lessons, and doing both soccer and surfing has helped my body be well-rounded. I would recommend being a duel athlete to anyone.
How has being from Florida shaped your surfing?
There are advantages and disadvantages to growing up in Florida, but I wouldn’t change a thing. Florida is special!
"We don’t have the most perfect waves 24/7, and we surf wind chop a lot, but it forces you to make something out of nothing."
Plus, when there are good waves, it’s the best thing in the world.
As part of the Rising Tides event prior to the Surf Ranch Pro, Zoe sampled the wave pool for herself. Photo: WSL/Nolan
Who inspires you right now?
A few people come to mind.
"Caroline Marks, of course, she just won the World Title. Being from Florida, she’s a great example and has the sweetest soul. What she’s done has been inspirational for people all over the world, especially girls like me from Florida."
Carissa Moore comes to mind. To me, she really shows that even though losing is hard, it’s the way you carry yourself after you lose. In the past, she has had the whole season in her hands before but didn’t win it all at the end of the year, yet she’s graceful and supportive. That’s a true champion — someone who loses with grace.
Zoe's inspired surfing at the EDP Vissla Ericeira Pro gave her a semifinal finish on the Challenger Series. Photo: WSL/ Poullenot
My mom comes to mind too. She taught me how to surf, she’s my parent, support crew, and even my surf coach at one point. She juggles 4 kids, me, my surf career. That shows how strong of a woman she is.
What’s your advice to the younger generation?
Make sure you're always having fun. When you’re younger, you want to push yourself, but don’t lose sight of why you started surfing.
"You’re going to lose a lot more than you win, and it’s how you react and carry yourself after those losses that shows what type of person you are."
Plus, enjoy it. Things will go by so fast. Soak up every trip, every heat, every experience. And everything you learn, take it as a learning lesson for the future.
Education is important too. Make sure you stay focused on getting good grades and completing your education.
Zoe's advice for the groms: enjoy it all every step of the way. Photo: WSL/Masurel
What are your surfing goals for 2024?
Competition wise, I want to re-qualify for Challenger Series. I also want to win at least two QS 3,000s. That’s a goal I set to push myself.
"I’m also looking forward to going on trips and freesurfing, too. With competition, you catch yourself being in competition mode out of the water, and a freesurf suddenly becomes a training session. So I’m looking forward to surfing without any pressure, surfing just for me."
I really want to get better this year, and have a good, action packed 2024!