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
When Burnside took her first glide on a skateboard, somewhere around 1978, it was cool for girls to skate. This was, by many accounts, skateboarding's heyday: The country's first skateboard parks opened in 1976 in Daytona Beach, Florida, and Carlsbad, California, and skating had become something of a national craze. Contests for young skaters—both boys and girls—flourished, particularly in the surf-happy towns along southern California's Highway 101. And Cara-Beth, a wiry ten-year-old from Orange County whose mother had started her on roller skates as a young girl, capitalized.

But no sooner had she gotten into it than the craze sputtered out. Plagued by clampdowns on zoning laws and staggering bills for liability insurance, the skateboard parks that had fueled the sport's meteoric rise were now, one by one, being forced to close. Its popularity on the wane, skateboarding went underground, becoming renegade, hard-core, and angry. It also became decidedly male.

"The girl thing just kind of died," says Cara-Beth. "So I did it for another year with the guys. I was around 13. I was good, but there was no direction. There was nothing for me to do." For years she did whatever sport could hold her attention—a season or two of flag football, several years of karate—and then became a star forward on her high school soccer team. Nothing, however, gave her the gravity-defying high that skateboarding had. After two years at Santa Rosa Junior College she transferred to UC Davis in 1989, where she played soccer for two seasons and graduated with a degree in human development in 1992. There were times she envisioned herself working with kids, maybe coaching sports, but somehow those things seemed like sacrifices.

By the time Burnside climbed back on a skateboard—encouraged by the extreme sports craze, threatened by the prospect of becoming just another nine-to-fiver in a mundane world—the sport's hard edges had grown even harder. Even as she started doing skateboard demos and occasionally competing in pro-level vert ramp contests for guys, even as she got her first offers of sponsorship, she was aware of the inevitable dead ends that lay ahead. Her male counterparts were flying from one event to the next, getting drunk, stoned, and paid along the way. Yet the sponsors providing the guys' meal tickets told Burnside that they were sorry, but there was nowhere to send her, no place for her to compete. "It was like having a job," she says now. "You get to a certain level and it's...boring. You want to move up to the next level and you don't have the chance."

She'd heard stories, though, of a pack of free-flying girls who were getting paid to travel the world, compete for big prizes, and live the life Burnside was dreaming of, unwired and weightless. Only they were doing it on snowboards. Up till then, Burnside's experience on the slopes had been limited to some wobbly attempts at skiing. But here was an irresistible option. She began trekking to Tahoe on weekends,
apprenticing herself to anyone who'd ride with her, and flailing her way through half-pipe contests. In 1993, a year after finishing college, she'd already picked up some snowboard sponsorship and a little bit of notoriety, having repackaged her vert ramp ferocity into highly technical and increasingly dazzling escapades in the half-pipe.

Burnside was a minor wonder, but like so many of her fellow aspirants she was also flat broke. She lived briefly with her older brother Scott in Orange, sleeping on a few blankets in one corner of his home office. She stood in parking lots all around Tahoe and begged early departers for their lift
tickets. Sometimes she'd hike 45 minutes to get to a half-pipe without a ticket. In Oregon she worked at High Cascades Snowboard Camp, shuttling campers to and from the airport in a yellow bus, tending to their wrist sprains and bruised tailbones like a mother. And when camp finished for the day, she'd bound down the mountain to the cement skateboard park on the other side of the highway, to maintain her dual compulsion. "I was in my own world," she says now of her frenetic drive to master both sports. "I was on my mission."

She was so good it was uncanny. Within four years of first stepping onto a snowboard, Burnside was traveling around Europe and Japan for World Cup events, placing regularly in the top ten. In 1995 she was ranked second in the world. In 1996 she clinched the Big Air competition at the U.S. Open at Stratton in Vermont. In 1998 she grabbed the X Games half-pipe title and played a part in snowboarding's inauguration at the Nagano Olympics.

It's hard to pinpoint what forces shaped snowboarding into a more equitable pursuit than skateboarding. Veteran riders like Shannon Dunn and Victoria Jealouse have their own stories about living in obscurity, bombarded by indifference in a male-driven marketplace, but somewhere along the way their talent took root and was recognized, helping the sport to grow. Today 40 percent of snowboarders are female, compared to less than 10 percent of skateboarders.

Burnside's success in snowboarding raised her stature in skating, too. More and more, given the crossover marketing between snow- and skateboarding, sponsors were
taking notice of what she could do. And she was gaining confidence in her own worth. When Vans went through a restructuring in 1996, Burnside worried that her already
paltry monthly salary of $50 would get cut. But rather than grovel, she went in and asked for the moon. "She said, 'No, forget it. I'm gonna take in my videos and magazine shots and show them who I am,'" recalls Segovia, who accompanied Burnside to her meeting with Gary Schoenfeld, the new Vans CEO. What she wanted was a signature skate shoe, something Vans had done for only a few of its top male skaters. "She just packed all her pictures up one day and marched over to Vans to talk to the president," remembers Mary-Love Burnside, Cara-Beth's mother, laughing. "And she got her shoe."

A year later, Vans unveiled the original CB skate shoe, a thick-soled suede sneaker with a replica of Burnside's sunburst tattoo on the heel. This was followed by the CB2 and the CB3 models, now offered in a rainbow of colors and found in skate shops across the country. A fourth CB shoe is currently in the works; it will be more durable and designed for serious skateboarders, Burnside says, signaling what she thinks is a promising demand among female skateboarders for gear that's "more hard-core."

As happy, and well-paid, as this makes her, Cara-Beth is still waiting for a tough competitive challenge from another girl skater. Her sponsors have grown accustomed to what Steve Van Doren at Vans calls her "gentle lectures" about how important it is to develop the women's skateboard market. "CB is not outspoken," says Van Doren. "She's totally low-key about it. But she gets her point across. She'll say in this low tone, 'Gee, it'd be nice to have a pro contest here.'" They do seem to be trying—though not hard enough, by Burnside's reckoning. There could be more contests for girls, more sponsorship dollars made available, more marketing glitter sprinkled on the few top female skaters like herself.

Yet the brand-naming and the hunt for more exposure strikes at what's becoming a familiar paradox in alternative sports: A culture gets built around its very counterculturedness, and the sport loses its edge the second it hits even a tributary of the mainstream. Recalling her experience snowboarding at the Nagano Olympics, Burnside adopts a rebel whine: "We got there and we had to get uniforms," she says, her voice dropping as she details each new assault on her freedom, the shackles borne by athletes but not by airborne elves. "We had to get all this stuff, and we were on a
time thing—buses, planes, interviews." Her only solace, she says, was that her mother and older sister were able to go and that in Japan you can buy beer out of hotel vending machines. Still, the Salt Lake Olympics now loom on the horizon. By December 1999, Burnside was off to a strong start on the snow, taking second at the Vans Triple Crown and third at the Mammoth Grand Prix. Asked whether she'll compete at the 2002 Games, her
attitude deflates. "Well, probably."

Even if skateboarding remains safe from Olympic glory, its outlaw status is somewhat grounded in misogyny. It's rare to see more than a handful of girls at a skateboard park. Open any one of the popular skate magazines and you'll find that women, if they
appear at all, show up in stories about strip bars or, for instance, in Strength magazine's Fantasy Forum, where porn-star columnists field letters that begin, "Dear Professional Leg-Spreader...." When Thrasher deigned to run a few photos of Segovia's All Girl Skate Jam in 1998, it was under the headline, "More Buns Than Weenies."

Burnside waves that stuff off. "The guys who read those magazines aren't the guys who are going anywhere in skateboarding," she says. "It's all about getting drunk and picking up chicks. The guys who win contests work really hard at what they do. They're super-serious and mostly pretty nice." She does what she can to make skateboard parks friendlier and less "vibey," whooping encouragement to any girl who shows up to skate, offering advice when it's asked for.

Burnside's own encouragement came from her parents, Mary-Love and Fred, who drove her to early contests and never once suggested she take up something more feminine than skateboarding. These days, Mary-Love travels to many of her daughter's contests, along with Sabrina. Fred, sidelined by health problems that leave him unable to work, stays mostly at home. Even as she drops in and out of her family's life in Orange, seeking refuge from her itinerant existence, sleeping on the futon in her old tapestry-covered bedroom, Cara-Beth seems to have become the family caretaker—nagging Sabrina, who also lives in the house, to do her homework, fretting over her father's well-being, and worrying that her mother doesn't get out enough.

Sitting in a beach chair by the pool behind her parents' house, a low-slung bungalow in a middle-class neighborhood of Orange County, Burnside munches on a toasted soy patty. She's thinking about her future, what's out there beyond the snow and the skate parks. The truth is she can hardly imagine it, being so wrapped up in the day-to-day dance between her two sports and her slavish devotion to staying young and fit. (She sees a kinesiologist and an acupuncturist regularly, and keeps little bottles of goldenseal and other herbal tinctures stashed in her room.) Pressed on the subject, she makes some noises about maybe teaching kids to skateboard and snowboard someday when she retires, but that's all.

Once, not so long ago, the Burnside home looked out onto hilly farmland. When Cara-Beth was a kid, she had a pony named Sugar Babe that she'd ride out there for hours. But Sugar Babe's been gone awhile now, and the hillside has been claimed by subdivisions. Still, sitting in the sunlight after a swim, her wet hair spilled like seaweed across her shoulders and her skin glowing, it's difficult to imagine Burnside getting older, getting slower, retiring. She fidgets in her chair, her eyes roam. "I can't put myself on a time line," she says, staring for a moment at the hill above her parents' house. "Time lines put limits on you, and I guess I'm not the kind of person who deals very well with limits."

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