"I'm tiiiiiiiiiiiiired!" "My baaaaaack hurts!" These are Burnside's friends, and this is a sushi restaurant full of San Diego yuppies. The All Girl Skate Jam ended an hour ago, with Burnside pocketing a thousand bucks in a clear victory on the vert ramp, plus her very own Skateboard Shannen doll, which now resides in the shadowy depths of the Yukon.
The friends—three female surfer pals, fellow pro snowboarder Victoria Jealouse, and Burnside's 18-year-old niece and frequent sidekick, Sabrina—have shown up for the celebration, having missed most or all of the contest itself. This doesn't stop them from razzing the day's hero. Sprawled out around a back table with a collection of king-size bottles of Sapporo beer, they are busy inventing Skateboard Cara-Beth, real-life sister to Skateboard Shannen, a motorized doll in a dirty T-shirt who complains fiercely every time you pull her string.
Jealouse, Burnside's closest friend, lifts her head and howls at the ceiling in a whiny little doll voice: "I need a massaaaaaaage!" The surfer girls, Tiffany, Indigo, and Sheri—lean, sun-bleached blondes in their twenties—erupt in rowdy laughter, shredding the restaurant's subdued hush.
Burnside smiles sheepishly and thwacks Jealouse on the shoulder. So she complains a little sometimes, so what? The truth is she is tired, and her back does hurt. An afternoon on a vert ramp will do that to you, especially if you don't let up. In the last two years, Burnside's been to four All Girl Skate Jams and won the vert contest at every one, hands down. She's also jumped from one sport to the next without taking a break, moving from skateboard season to the snow just as most of her snowboarding rivals are returning from a good off-season rest. "It's hard to explain how amazing it is that she stays on top in two sports," says snowboarder Shannon Dunn, who narrowly edged Burnside out for a bronze in Nagano. "Nobody else out there, guy or girl, has Cara-Beth's energy."
Today, for example, she could've gone easy, could've pulled out a few old tricks and still taken the prize, but that's not what it's about for Burnside. If it were only about first place, she'd have gone soft a long time ago; the fact is that her closest skateboarding competitors are just mastering tricks she was nailing a year ago. What she's chasing is an image in her mind—the sweet spot, the perfect moment when time becomes elastic and the body performs flawlessly. While Burnside looks at what the men are doing for inspiration—the giant air and dazzling back flips that keep ESPN2 in business—the women are all looking at her. At the last Skate Jam, held in May in Rhode Island, Candy Kramer, a pretty, olive-skinned skater from Florida and a perennial runner-up to Burnside, videotaped Cara-Beth's impeccable gay twist—a fakey to forward 360-degree rotation with a one-handed grab—and spent hours on the couch at home, watching her perform in slow motion. "No matter how hard I work on it, I still can't go as high as she does," Kramer confesses, laughing. "I can't even come close."
This is the thing about Cara-Beth Burnside: She cannot be outworked, even as the obvious motivations, like staying on top of the competition, slip away. Earlier today, Steve Van Doren, vice-president of promotions for the shoe company Vans, Burnside's primary sponsor, watched as she attempted a Caballaerial, a 360-degree fakey to forward rotation executed no-handed. Named for eighties skate-star Steve Caballero and known as the Cab for short, it requires rotational speed and deft footwork, and happens to be the kind of trick that separates male skaters from female. Burnside has had her sights set on the no-handed Cab for months—threshing it over and over in her mind, imagining it unfolding perfectly—even as she bided her time far away from the big ramps of southern California, doing some summer snowboarding in Oregon. Today she launched it once but lost her footing in midflight and crashed on the ramp. On the next go-around she tried again, and crashed again. Then another time, with the same result. By now her T-shirt was covered with skid marks from the ramp, her face hot and damp with exertion, her back starting to cramp. Even the crowd seemed anguished, watching her. But Burnside headed up the ramp again. Passing Van Doren on the way, she flashed a half-grin and a thumbs-up. He shook his head. "She's always like this," he said, bemused. "We'll have to drag her off that ramp."
"Cara-Beth's obsessed," says Jealouse. The two met six years ago in the parking lot at Mount Hood and became fast friends, traveling to World Cup snowboarding events and making appearances for Burton, their mutual sponsor. "She gets mad when she can't do something," Jealouse says. "She'll be walking up the half-pipe, kind of growling. People steer clear. They say, 'Gosh, is she even having fun?' But she is. She's just struggling to learn her tricks. If it was easy, it wouldn't be fun for her."
Her work ethic is the stuff of legend—the way she'll dodge the ski patrol at sunset, hiding in the trees to steal another 20 minutes to perfect her latest trick; the way she's literally had to crawl up the stairs after a particularly intense round of face-plants and dingers on the vert ramp. "She gets mad at the rest of the girls when we leave the skate park after two hours," says fellow skateboarder and All Girl Skate Jam founder Patty Segovia. "We stay out two hours and she stays four."
What motivates Burnside? Her friends have one answer: perfection. Burnside herself grows flustered trying to explain. She's not shooting to win one specific contest, beat a particular competitor, or achieve some definitive level of fame. Instead, it's that thing in her mind, the next trick, the next tantalizing, just-out-of-reach accomplishment that's eluding her. "You try and you try and you try for so long," she says, "and then one day you get it. You landed it. You're so high. So high." Her eyes soften at the thought, at the memory that comes attached to every trick she's ever nailed. "I kind of fiend for that."
Yet the pursuit of perfection has its costs: Two years ago Burnside fractured her collarbone, and six months after that she fractured her clavicle. There have been five concussions, too; if she were an NFL quarterback, she'd be retired by now. But she won't even think about quitting. After six years and more than 30 top-three finishes she's cut back on her snowboard competitions, abandoning the World Cup circuit altogether, though she still travels and competes in U.S. contests throughout the winter before switching her attention back to skateboarding. From the outside, it seems as if she's devised a life of perpetual youth, in which the language is a secret one shared only by devotees, whatever their sex. But where snowboarding is liberated—the opportunities for girls being
virtually the same as for guys—skateboarding is not. This bugs Burnside. She's no suffragette, mind you, but she feels lonely having no one there to compete with, no squad of trash-talking upstarts looking to dethrone her, not to mention a lingering bitterness for the days when she was a true outsider, an interloper in a male world. There have been bad vibes, offhand comments, and one time, according to Patty Segovia, some guys kicked Burnside's skateboard right over the fence at the park. She's not a crier by nature, but away from the guys, at times she's sat down and cried.
Now, in the skate parks, they stop to watch CB, this small-framed girl-bullet who may or may not have a chip on her shoulder, who seems to live half the time in her mind. According to Andy Macdonald, who skates frequently with her in Encinitas, California, Burnside's bravado on the ramp has silenced any critics. "She goes for the harder tricks and she keeps at it," he says. "There's no other woman riding a ramp who even comes close to her. She's better than a lot of guys, and there's definite respect for her—maybe even some jealousy." By sheer force of will, Burnside has made people take notice of her. Not one for public speaking, she uses the ramp as her pulpit, a place where she can issue a call to girls who may be too intimidated to persist, to the sponsors who continuously insist that skateboarding's a dead market for girls; a place where she can be both eloquent and forceful. This is Burnside's thing. It's what keeps her flying and falling.
"A lot of people say she's hell-bent," says Segovia. "It's the perfect word for her, actually. She always tells me that you have to make change happen yourself, even when the resistance is huge. That's what she's doing. She's hell-bent."
Struggles aside, Burnside's life is a good one. She's on salary with Burton and Vans, gets clothing from Volcom, watches from Baby-G, and sunglasses from Arnette. Her signature shoe—the CB, by Vans—is selling more than 150,000 units a year. Plus she's seen the world: skateboarded Puerto Rico, surfed the Maldives, snowboarded everywhere from Chile to Japan, and turned her mostly vegetarian nose up at sauerbraten and liver all over Europe. How many 31-year-olds can say that?
There's a rootlessness that accompanies so much freedom, though. Tired of not having a home base, Burnside's been looking at real estate lately in Encinitas, a skateboard mecca not far from her hometown of Orange, though she and Jealouse are also toying with the idea of buying a house in Tahoe. But then, why sign the papers when you'd hardly ever be home anyway? Burnside, who often crashes at her parents' house in Orange County, is off to San Francisco next week to pose as a virtual model for a Sony PlayStation skateboarding game. Soon after that, she's taking off for a Skate Jam in Hawaii. Jealouse flew in from Japan just today and has only a few more days before she flies out for a Burton photo shoot in the Andes.
"We don't live anywhere!" Burnside laughs, expertly using her chopsticks to flip a piece of maguro into her mouth. "I mean, I have a storage unit I'm paying rent on, and there's not even good stuff in it!"
Buoyed now by sushi and beer and a few Advils, Burnside seems to have forgotten her aching back. The surfer girls have ordered more Sapporo. Jealouse has pulled out an instant camera she bought in Japan, one that produces little photos the size of postage stamps, and is pointing it at Sabrina, who leans over the table, making faces. Sherri gets out her cell phone and starts calling around to find tonight's party.
There is no talk of boyfriends, no discussion of the future beyond this one night. Instead, the girls bask in a healthy kind of ribaldry, a Peter Pan timelessness that springs from being suntanned, strong-bodied, and mortgage-free. They're serious but not serious, athletes but not athletes, free—at least for the moment—to live from good time to good time. Victoria recalls the night they were all wrestling and Cara-Beth, a brown belt in karate, chipped one of Tiffany's teeth.
"But remember that time you threw a bar stool at me and Indigo?" Cara-Beth says to Victoria. "That was gnarly!"
Now a tug-of-war breaks out between Sabrina and Tiffany over one of Victoria's snapshots. Victoria takes a photo of Cara-Beth halfheartedly trying to intercede. The flashbulb pops. A beer bottle goes over. A water glass tips. Sherri continues to talk blithely on the phone. Two waiters come running, but the girls are deep into battle now, laughing raucously as the entire restaurant turns to look. They poke and slap at one another, while Victoria jumps on Sabrina for a piggyback ride. Nobody kicks them out exactly, but it's clearly time to leave. They pay the bill and depart—a riotous female scrum, brawling past the silver-topped sushi bar and out into the dewy San Diego night.