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The Burton U.S. Open unfolded in emotional fashion last week in Vail. For the first time in the Open’s 38-year run, its founder and namesake was not in attendance.
The spirit of Burton Snowboards founder Jake Burton Carpenter, who died at age 65 last November after a sudden return of testicular cancer, permeated the 2020 event.
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“When you ride for Burton, it’s more like becoming part of a family than riding for a company,” says Olympic gold medalist and eight-time U.S. Open champion Kelly Clark, who rode for Burton for more than 20 years and, having announced her retirement in 2019, served as commentator for last week’s event. “That’s really what Jake and Donna [Carpenter, Jake’s wife] have built and embedded into their brand and the culture.”
Clark, like others close to Burton, spoke of the snowboarding pioneer with wet eyes. For Clark, the Carpenters were the most reliable constants throughout her career, which spanned five Olympic Games and more wins than any snowboarder in history.
“Over the years he and Donna both were my biggest cheerleaders, at the bottom of every meaningful halfpipe event that I ever competed in,” Clark says. “They were there to celebrate with me or ask, ‘what were the judges thinking?’ The guy loved sports more than almost anyone I knew. He created one and cheered its champions. Some of my best memories are celebrating in the finish area … he and Donna sitting in front of the banners, the first people to hug and tackle me when I got bumped up to the top of the podium. We had a wonderful relationship. I’m grateful to have been able to call him a friend.”
Widely considered the godfather of snowboarding, Burton grew up on the East Coast, attending the University of Colorado Boulder for a year and trying out (unsuccessfully) for CU’s Ski Team before relocating back east and developing an interest in riding single plank boards, the only one of which existed at the time being a mini board with rope contraption called a Snurf. It was in 1977 that Burton began building snowboards in the barn behind his house in Vermont. After marrying Donna in 1983, the couple moved to Europe to expand their manufacturing operation before relocating back to Vermont, their business growing as they inspired and guided the popularity of the sport.
“I always knew how big of an impact he had bringing snowboarding to life in the ’70s. Since Jake has passed, it’s just become so evident how many people he really touched,” says snowboarding icon and Burton team rider Danny Davis, reflecting on his first U.S. Open. “It’s the first contest I ever did as a kid back in 2003. That was the first opportunity he gave me. As I started to think about it more and more, the amount of opportunity that guy gave myself and a lot of snowboarders and people in the world is amazing.”
Another characteristic defining Jake Burton and one he deeply instilled in his sport was having fun. Dozens of snowboarders at the U.S. Open participated in the Ride For Jake memorial session in Vail’s Riva Glade, one of Jake’s favorite areas to ride whenever he and Donna vacationed in Colorado, which was often.
“Jake always said, ‘have as much fun as possible.’ That was his motto, and if you look at snowboarding, that one is alive and well,” Clark says. “Whatever meeting, whatever company function, whatever event, it was always about the snowboarding. So I’ve ridden with Jake countless times.”
To honor Burton’s 42-year legacy in the snowboard industry, “A Day For Jake” marks a global celebration of snowboarding on March 13, in which 13 resorts around the world—including Copper Mountain—will offer free lift tickets to snowboarders who pre-register.
“The man is a legend for sure. Snowboarding wouldn’t be where it is today without him,” says U.S. Open athlete and Team Burton rider Ben Ferguson. “Without Jake Burton, there wouldn’t be the U.S. Open, this amazing event that brings so many people together. He was just a really, really good human being, really generous, always having fun, charismatic, just an awesome dude you’d want to be around.”
Even professional snowboarders who have never represented Burton noted the emotional impact Jake made on them, as well as the deep mark he’s made in their sport.
“He’s made a huge impact, not just on snowboarding, but on women’s snowboarding,” says pro rider Maddie Mastro. “With Donna, they’ve always been inclusive, giving us the best event, giving us a place to progress. I wasn’t a Burton rider, but when I was doing well, he was there to congratulate me and give me a high five. We have equal prize purses at this contest, and it’s a big prize purse. It’s nice to be treated fairly and with the same respect as the dudes. There are other brands seeing his blueprint, other brands catching on. So we’ve got this great community of seeing how it should be done and then doing it.”
As tears were shed over the weekend, those close to Jake Burton found solace in their goal to continue doing things the way he did them.
“There’s a high value on individuality, authenticity, and progression, on always getting better, not being stagnant. It’s a testament to who he was,” Clark says. “I hope we get to carry on his legacy for a very long time.”