Cara-Beth Burnside

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?

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The Unbearable Lightness of Being the Boarder Queen

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.

“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.

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.”

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.