Cara-Beth Burnside is seated at the head of the class. It’s a soupy, late spring afternoon and the is hosting a book signing at the Old School House for , which features Burnside. The gathering is winding down but Burnside is busy absorbing an older fan’s barrage of questions with a crooked smile and nonchalance. But she’s fidgety, too. Her eyes dart around the room — more than once toward the open doors. Waiting patiently beside her is a kid with shaggy hair and a fresh cast on his wrist. When she finally breaks free she says to him, “OK Tyler, let’s get out of here.” But it’s too late — someone else has her cornered. There will be no skate session for her and Tyler today, and you can bet she’s bummed about it.
I’ve come to interview her but I can’t get a word in, so I pick around the room, settling on a display copy of Burns’ book. Somewhere between the story of Paul “Poinsettia” Ecke and the Surfing Madonna, I find an image of Burnside executing a flawless feeble grind to fakie in the Encinitas YMCA’s famous kidney bowl. She is the only female action sports athlete in the book.
“I thought you’d like to come here to just meet me first,” she says some time later, as she’s conveniently darting out the door. “Come by my house — we’ll do the interview then.”
And then she’s gone.
I don’t protest. You can’t argue with a veteran. For the better part of three decades, she’s been pursued, photographed, written about, and idolized worldwide. All that time, she’s carried much of the fate of women’s skateboarding on her thick, tanned shoulders, and its momentum in her nimble, Vans-outfitted feet. As a pioneer in girls’ vert and bowl skating and an X Games gold medalist in both skate and snowboarding, she is often referred to as the female Tony Hawk and Shaun White — a Tony White if you will. But she’s happier when you just go with the Shaun White moniker. Because, hey man—he’s not retired and neither is she.
All of this freakish talent and fearlessness has made Burnside a busy woman, and thus notoriously hard to pin down since the first day she walked into Big O Skatepark in Orange at 10 years old. On her first run she completely, irreversibly fell in love with skateboarding. Back then — in the late ’70s — skateboarding was experiencing its first heyday. There were skateparks across Southern California, “pro” teams that included males and females, and events all over the country.
Then one day the Powerflex team showed up at Big O and a girl named Teri Lawrence was with them, skating on her own signature model.
“I knew instantly that I could do it if Teri could,” Burnside says as we sit at a table beside the mini ramp in the yard of her Encinitas home. Just then her spindly calico Angel — one of her nine rescue cats — pops up on the table and sniffs an open bag of mini carrots and veggie crisps. Lauren Callahan, a pro snowboarder, talented street skater, and Burnside protégé who has joined our conversation offers Angel a quick scratch, then continues bobbing her head enthusiastically with Burnside’s every word.
Unfortunately, not long after Burnside got the skateboarding bug, Big O and most across the US closed because of strangling zoning laws and increasing personal injury lawsuits. Skateboarding, in general, retreated to society's fringes.
She still skated throughout the ’80s, but there was no hope for a career as a “girl” skateboarder, so she found herself on a more “normal” life path at UC Davis, where she played soccer and majored in human development. But after only two seasons, she quit the team “because I was skating and surfing too much — there was just no way…”
There was a final thought at the end of that sentence but it's forever lost when she abruptly jumps up and runs into her house.
In her absence, Callahan opens up. We talk about her life back in the Philadelphia area, and how her lifelong love affair with skateboarding fast-tracked her to Encinitas, where she’s often skating with the best of the best. She excitedly tells me about how Burnside, or CB as her friends call her, recently took her and the entire Hoopla Skate Team to Tony Hawk’s private indoor park in Carlsbad, then points to a nasty raspberry on her chin.
“I was knocked out for a little bit,” she says with a wry chuckle. “CB had to wake me up at the bottom of the ramp.”
From being there for friends after big spills to nurturing the next generation of skaters, it seems Burnside is always there to keep girls’ skateboarding awake.
Burnside hustles back to the table with binders filled with her press coverage and advertisements since the very beginning.
Encouraged by the booming popularity of extreme sports, she began skateboarding hard again in the late ’80s, even competing in men’s events and placing. Then in 1989, there she was on the cover of Thrasher magazine, all pink and ponytail boosting out of the vert ramp at the old Vans headquarters. It was a humble $50-a-month professional beginning and a historic leap in girls skateboarding.
But it wasn’t enough for a career, so Burnside turned her attention to the mountains.
“I realized snowboarding was still pretty new and I could see myself becoming a pro, getting sponsors, paychecks, and plane tickets around the world,” she says. “That wasn’t going to happen in skating.”
It wasn’t her first love, but snowboarding was a sufficient fix. And in typical Burnside fashion, it became an ardent pursuit. On weekends and between classes, she made the two-and-a-half hour drive to Lake Tahoe and translated her talents on wood and concrete to groomed super parks and half-pipes. When she graduated Davis in 1992, she'd already attracted big sponsorships—and three years later, she was second in the world. By 1998 she was the X Games half-pipe champ and one spot shy of bronze at Nagano, where snowboarding made its Olympic debut.
Despite success, the skateparks by the coast still beckoned. Besides, these were heady days for Burnside and the brands that sponsored her. The time was ripe for girls skateboarding to make a comeback.
The push began the year before with Burnside’s friend Patty Segovia, who introduced the first All Girls Skate Jam to National City, which was the first girls-only skate event since the ’70s.
But it was at the 2002 X Games in Philadelphia that the biggest step in girls skateboarding happened. Burnside, along with pro skaters Jen O’Brien and Mimi Knoop, convinced ESPN execs to host a girls’ demo. It wasn’t an event yet, but it was a foot in the door, and a chance for the ladies to spread the gospel on the biggest media platform in action sports.
In 2003, the X Games had its first women’s vert event, which Burnside won. By 2005, the girls had as much prize money as the guys and Burnside was sporting the fourth edition of her signature Vans skate shoe. Then she, along with O’Brien and Knoop, created The Alliance, a non-profit for female skateboarders that oversees the girls’ X Games skate events and other pro functions.
Things were going so well that Burnside focused on skating again and put down the backpack, bought this place in Encinitas, and habitually scoffed at anyone who mentioned retirement in her presence.
And then the global financial crisis hit in 2008.
Suddenly, the dark ages were upon girls skateboarding again. The sponsorship deals dried up, the X Games dropped women’s vert, and all-girls events started flaking off like flower pedals.
“It’s funny,” says Mimi Knoop, who acts as the unofficial president of The Alliance. “The male skaters are supportive of the girls, but it’s the companies that don’t want to take a chance. They compare us to the guys and that’s the conversation ender, but we need to be marketed another way.”
Unfortunately, major companies and media have virtually given up on marketing the girls. In fact, the only real female presence out there is The Alliance — and Hoopla Skateboards, which Knoop founded.
In the absence of mainstream support, The Alliance and Hoopla are using the Internet to keep girls together through the rough times. Koop is constantly traveling for the groups, cutting deals and getting exposure, which is the key to getting more girls in the park. Callahan is an unofficial ambassador — a testament to the nurturing influence of Burnside. And Burnside, well, she’s still out there, spreading the word from the ramps and proving that girls really can skate.
“Whenever she has an opportunity to attend a demo or an event with a sponsor,” says Knoop, “she tries to get all the girls involved. She’s generous and selfless — she just makes skating more attainable for everyone.”
“I’ve always taken kids around to skate and now I’m kind of a coach, working with those that want to get better,” Burnside adds. “I think I’m going to start an elite skateboarding thing because I like doing this… I’m excited.”
She doesn’t sound quite convinced about this “elite skateboarding thing,” but that’s because it’s an adjustment. Coaching may not be as glorious as gold and conquering the world’s most frightening vert ramps and half-pipes—but it’s gratifying nonetheless. Among those that know her, and those that just know of her, there’s no doubt Burnside is the matriarch of girls skateboarding.
“CB has been a huge mentor for every girl skater,” says Knoop, who found out about pro contests for girls in 2001 when she happened upon Burnside and O’Brien, who were competing in the Vans Soul Bowl event on TV.
Echoing Burnside’s words, Knoop says, “I knew I could do this if these women I was watching could.”
It’s that recurring sentiment that will keep girls skating through good years, and bad.