The Unbearable Lightness of Being the Boarder Queen

She can hit frontside 50-50s all day long, snag half-pipe titles with her eyes closed and stretch her hang time to the edge of forever, but what while Cara-Beth Burnside do when it's time to grow up?

Mar 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

She comes late, over an hour, hopping out of her SUV onto a downtown San Diego parking lot with her backpack and her skateboard like a kid out of a school bus—a small, spritelike woman sprung from an absurdly large car. This is Cara-Beth Burnside, the only person in vert ramp skateboarding to whom the words "female" and "menace" both apply. She is compact and darty, with longish, brownish hair, a wry, contained smile, and gold-flecked eyes that seem to rove constantly. When she is not on her skateboard—when she is, say, rummaging through the sale rack at Old Navy or eating veggie tacos at the beach in Cardiff—Burnside is often doing something she calls "mind-skating." She mind-skates all the time, perhaps because the world can only hold so much of her attention in a given moment. Behind those eyes, beneath the furrow in her brow and the droopy clothes that seem to pull her nearer to the ground, a part of Cara-Beth Burnside is always somewhere else, on a skateboard, somewhere high up and closer to perfection.

The SUV, on the other hand, is an earthly mother, one of those black, boxy GMC Yukons. It's the moving motel room that's carted Burnside up and down the West Coast for months now, lost in a bubble of Metallica when she's hyped, Neil Young when she's not, working the cell phone, blabbing away her 1,400 monthly minutes and then some talking to friends in SoCal vernacular—in which the vibes are good or bad or sometimes just "vibey" and a girl wakes up either stoked or not stoked for the day ahead. Tossed deep in the Yukon's posterior are the remnants of a life lived largely in motion—12 pairs of sneakers, a jumble of empty water bottles, some old newspapers, a scuffed-up helmet, two backpacks, a dirty T-shirt, a mound of knee pads, a tool box, a solitary crushed Bud can. From Mammoth to Orange County to Tahoe to Hood and back down again, homeless but essentially happy, she collects paychecks as both a pro skateboarder and snowboarder, a top performer in each endeavor.

So far the vibes have been positive. In the eight years she's been competing, Burnside has finished fourth at the Olympics on the snowboarding half-pipe, won the 1998 Winter X Games half-pipe title, and earned a bushel of snowboarding grand prix. She's also won every skateboarding contest available to women—or girls, as they will always be known, and always refer to themselves, in the board-sport universe, where to be a woman is to submit oneself to a distasteful austerity, while girlhood, with all its sunny freedoms, is something to hold onto forever. Burnside, whose sagging surf shorts and stringy ponytail can make her look 17, is often purposely evasive about her age, telling those who ask that she's "twentysomething." In fact, she's 31. But if being a veritable grandmother in her two teenager-dominated sports doesn't slow her down, she argues, why should she let others judge her by her age? While her male counterpart, X Games eminence Tony Hawk, recently announced his retirement from competition at 31, Burnside refuses to even acknowledge that she may have an athletic shelf-life. It would mean putting herself out to pasture before girl skateboarders get the chance to compete in contests like the X Games or the newly minted Gravity Games, where vert ramp studs like Hawk and Andy Macdonald have ollied their way to piles of cash—earning up to $18,000 in a single afternoon—not to mention serious national exposure. It's a frustrating situation. With few opportunities to compete, Burnside remains all but invisible, despite being, in Macdonald's words, "far and away the best woman skating on a ramp."

Today, however, is the All Girl Skate Jam, the only pro-level contest for women in the United States, held several times a year in different cities. In a roped-off corner of a San Diego street fair, with the odor of kielbasa and fried onions blooming in the warm mid-September air, about 80 girls sprawl like an occupying army. Mostly teenagers, they sit, butts parked on their boards, smoking cigarettes and sipping skinny cans of super-caffeinated Red Bull soda. There are girls in bikini tops and cutoffs, girls in wool skullcaps and flannel, in tattoos and tongue studs, in dreadlocks, in ponytails, and one—a pretty Asian girl wearing a daisy print T-shirt—in a green mohawk. Some warm up on a 12-foot-high vert ramp, others swoop and whir over the street course, a maze of benches, rails, ramps, and quasi-urban obstacles suitable for leaping, skimming, and otherwise appropriating in order to sling one's body and one's board into the air.

Burnside, who has been sitting on the pavement, strapping on her knee pads and stretching a sore back, suddenly points a finger. "Oh my God, what is that?"

A few feet away, a motorized figurine buzzes through the thicket of tanned legs and beat-up boards. This is Skateboard Shannen, a new remote-control toy from Mattel, enjoying its official launch at the Skate Jam. Skateboard Shannen is a plastic pixie doll with a neat fringe of flaxen hair, flawless skin, and expressionless blue eyes. She is 11 inches tall, wears baggy jeans and a pink tank top, and scoots around on a neon-green skateboard with hot-pink wheels. Mattel has sent a few marketing reps and set up an information table—"Turns in any direction! Awesome 360s!"—but Skateboard Shannen appears to be on her own today and having little impact on the life-size skateboard girls.

Instead, the girls are fixated on their cult heroes—women like Heidi Fitzgerald, 27, a big girl with a blunt dark bob, lots of tattoos, and an ugly gash on her left knee, and Ashley Mull, 19, a freckled blonde who attends a nearby public high school where skateboarding is offered as a for-credit class, and who has broken her wrist three times in the last six months. At the moment, she's soaring on the vert ramp, one arm encased in plaster. Leaning up against a chain-link fence is Elissa Steamer, a gruff-looking, 24-year-old string bean dressed in low-riding Levi's, considered to be the country's top female street skater. In 1998, at the first annual All Girl Skate Jam, Steamer confessed to a reporter that she'd never, not once in her life, skated with another girl.

At the top of this loose hierarchy is Cara-Beth Burnside. She doesn't smoke and she's got only one tattoo—a delicate yellow sunburst with her nickname,"CB," etched onto her left wrist. Sitting amid her younger compatriots' billowing cigarette haze and talk of raging beach parties, she appears relatively tame and vaguely all-American. Be assured, she knows how to rage—the five-year-old tattoo is the product, she says, of "lots and lots of tequila"—but with time she's grown more moderate, focused on keeping her body tuned. She swims and surfs and takes long hikes with her mom when she can. She lives on toasted soy patties and organic vegetables, visits a massage therapist twice weekly, and seems to be the only person at the Skate Jam who actually stretches before taking to the ramp. It'd be easy to mistake her for an athlete if that weren't "completely the wrong category," she says. Skateboarders, even obsessive ones like her, aren't athletes. Snowboarders aren't really athletes, either, even though they've kind of been corralled in that direction. No, insists Burnside, what she does—what skateboarders and snowboarders do—is different from what people with coaches and training sessions and uniforms do. "We're not so heavy," she explains. "We're, I dunno how to say it...something else."

But what? As a woman, Burnside is caught in the margins of an already marginalized sport. With few exceptions, pro skateboarders are an impoverished lot—bunking together in ratty bungalows up and down the California coast, living off small stipends from sponsors, reveling in skateboarding's fuck-all image. But as the sport's popularity has grown, a handful of the best skaters have made their concessions to the mainstream, cashing in on marketing opportunities and educating themselves in public relations along the way. Cara-Beth Burnside may not be hawking Skateboard Shannens, exactly, but in a dual attempt to make an adult living and boost the visibility of girls in skateboarding, she's doing everything she can—from trade-show appearances to compulsive training—to ensure her longevity.

Silently, she straps on her silver helmet and carries her board to the vert ramp. The girls who have been warming up instantly clear away, leaving her alone in the massive masonite and plywood parabola. Shoving off, she pumps her legs powerfully a few times until she's rolling, until body and board have achieved a smooth pendulum-swing, climbing all the way to the upper deck and gradually to the air beyond. A crowd starts to gather, first 50, then 80, then 100 or more spectators, drawn from the street fair, all eyes on Burnside, who is looping high overhead—rocking, rotating, expertly skimming the air, then dropping back to her board with just enough time to anticipate her next trick.

Frontside 50-50. Handplant. Air-to-fakey. She's speaking an aerial language now, one that most of the spectators, mainstreamers with their cups of keg beer and kielbasas, can only compute in simple terms of speed, motion, and flight. This is what she's waited for, what all the mind-skating has been about. Dipping her knees, Burnside unleashes herself again, and the crowd holds its breath. This time it's a long, slow 360—an ecstatic 'scuse me while I kiss the sky moment, gorgeous and arrested—before her feet find the board again, and she's sweeping with supreme confidence toward her next bite of air.

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