|Another shimmery California afternoon, another chance to skate. Dressed in a blue Volcom T-shirt and shredded cargo shorts, Burnside has hit a late-day session at the Encinitas YMCA, which looks like any other YMCA except for the 35,000 square feet of fenced-in concrete sitting directly behind the preschool. It's a skateboarder's paradise, with an extensive street course, a ten-foot-deep pool for carving, and what's considered to be the best public vert ramp in the state, an 80-foot-long behemoth where the most hard-core of pro skaters regularly come to strut and fly. Burnside likes it here because from the top of the ramp she can glimpse a tantalizing blue sliver of the Pacific, about a mile away.
Today she's amped, ready to work. This is opposed to de-amped, which she was yesterday when she just wanted to sit by the pool in Orange and eat her soy patties. Spotting a few friends on the deck of the vert ramp, all guys and all pro skaters, Burnside climbs the stairs and says her hellos. She's greeted cheerfully, like an old friend. Her buddy Andy Macdonald, lean and dark-haired, slings an arm around her and excitedly relates tales of the recent all-guy Gravity Games in Providence, Rhode
Island, where Tony Hawk crashed on a 540 and some other guy slammed so hard they had to give him an IV right on the ramp. "It was the gnarliest thing I've ever seen," Macdonald says as Cara-Beth nods, intrigued. "Blood was everywhere!"
Formalities dispensed with, she warms up on the street course, rocketing over a bench and then sliding along a short railing, her skateboard clattering noisily as she goes. Other skaters, many of them boys under the age of 12, swoop and dive around her like busy gnats. Loosening up, she moves on to the pool, coasting like a ball bearing around its high rims, grabbing a little air when the fancy strikes her. A few younger girls show up to skate the pool, and Burnside pauses to say hey. As time passes, though, the sociability begins to ebb, the intensity grows. Everywhere it's a whirl of motion—skateboards whisking, bodies lifting and rabbit-kicking the air, waiting for gravity to pull them back to earth. Skateboard sessions tend to have a rhythm of their own, depending on who's skating that day. Today's is quickly evolving into a "snake session," a long sweaty grind where only the super-aggressive survive.
Burnside seems unaware of time altogether. She moves onto the vert ramp, joining about 20 guys on the upper deck, all of them with their boards hanging impatiently over the lip, waiting like vultures for their chance to drop in. The rule is you don't drop in till the last guy's fallen and gotten to his feet again. Then you've got to be quick, grabbing your opportunity before someone else grabs it away. Among the guys, Burnside is small but no less eager. She stands in her silver helmet, hands planted on knees, one foot on the board, and then leaps at her chance: Down, down the ramp she flies, then up, up into the air, drawing her knees to her chest and twirling wildly. "Yeah, girl," someone calls from the deck. "C'mon CB," says another, encouragingly.
She pops and fizzes in the air before them, a little ball of mercury doing her tricks—a 360, an alley-oop—and then she goes for the Caballaerial. One hip dips too low and she slams, skidding out on her knees and dodging the next skater, who's already dropped in. It goes like this for another hour. Each time Burnside slams, she bounces back to her feet and dashes up the stairs to the deck, quickly rejiggering her ponytail and waiting to take her next shot.
Before long their numbers have dwindled—to ten, then eight, then five, as one by one the guys pull their fatigued bodies off the ramp. The afternoon sun is waning; the ocean has turned an iridescent green. A YMCA employee emerges from a booth and calls up at those still skating: "Five minutes!"
Burnside waits as one guy drops in, then another, then another. It should be her turn next, but this, after all, is a snake session: the first guy takes another turn.
"Three minutes!" Seeing her window, she drops in and falls almost instantly. Damn! She bounds up the stairs again and leans in to wait.
"One minute!" The YMCA timekeeper has begun to slowly drag a chain across the vert ramp—the only sure way to drive the skaters off—and is marching with his watch held up in front of him as if to ward off demons.
One skater plunges and nearly barrels over the timekeeper. Burnside watches almost frantically. The chain covers over two-thirds of the vert ramp's length now. She's got about 15 feet and 15 seconds, but maybe that's all she needs. So she swings down and lets it all go—unspools her body without another thought, sashaying up the wall and into the darkening air.
She grasps it instantly, the moment's elasticity, the elusive Cab suddenly within reach. Her back arches; the board momentarily drops away. She won't quite land this one, catching the board again but eventually skidding out on her knees. And yet here in the air, in this singular instant, she feels the lure of perfection in her bones, like for just one second she's limitless and eternally young, frozen in exuberant flight.
Outside correspondent Sara Corbett is the author of Venus to the Hoop: A Gold Medal Year in Women's Basketball.