By Rob Lemay | Photos [o] Ben Girardi
Andrew Burns. That name goes hand in hand within Canadian snowboarding. It’s one that should be known across the global snowboard community. I remember first seeing his video parts in old Skids movies and meeting him for the first time felt larger than life. That stands true to this day. Burns is someone who constantly impresses. Despite his struggles with health, he perseveres and pushes on. Burns has always set his goals high, higher than most even in a place as ambitious as Whistler. Against all odds, he keeps the dream alive.
How did you get here?
Well, the short story is I was born in Ottawa. Grew up riding in Gatineau and pretty much any park with a hill. I went to Camp of Champions when I was 14 and realized immediately that Whistler was where I needed to be. I met Jason Brown, my hero on so many levels, and started riding for Capita. I made the move to Whistler soon after. I met all of my best friends through snowboarding and it’s given my best memories, and wouldn’t trade any of it for the world.
A lot of people know you well in snowboarding, but not everyone knows that you were born with a unique skin condition similar to what Michael Jackson had. Care to explain?
It’s a skin pigment disorder. When I was a kid, I was told it's like my pigment cells are “allergic to themselves.” But yes it's like what Michael Jackson had sort of. And it's very apparent when it's under a black light.
So glow bowling must have been cool growing up.
Yeah, actually there was a time, with a bunch of homies back in Ontario one night, where I literally drank for free all night. People wanted to take photos of me because my skin and eyes glow. So they would buy me drinks. It was great. But yeah, so that's one of the many things that I've been gifted with. I was born with one kidney too. It's a big kidney, but I've only got one. I also have a bone density disorder where my bones are thicker and tougher. Which is actually kinda sweet, so I'm literally big boned. (In the voice of the Dos Equis beer commercial guy) I don't always break bones, but when I do they snap.
Sounds like you’ve been fighting since you were born.
Yeah, so it's interesting, my parents who raised me were trying to have kids, but they couldn't. They adopted me before I was born. My birth mother was like 17 or something at the time, maybe not taking care of herself, anyways, blah, blah, blah, she put me up for adoption. Side note, a month before I was born, my mom actually ended up getting pregnant so I have a sister who's only eight months younger than me, which is pretty sweet.
And on top of all that, you've also been diagnosed with diabetes now?
Yes, so that's an interesting one. I have Type 1 Juvenile Diabetes, but I'm a rare case where it's late onset. So about seven years ago, after an awesome summer in Argentina, I went to Puerto Rico with my homie Sam who had been down south with us. He and his family live in the jungle in a bamboo house, it's sweet. So I went and stayed with them in the jungle helping build more bamboo huts, surfing; all that stuff. I started having all these weird symptoms like: being excessively thirsty, pissing a lot, and my vision was getting weird. But then it would level off, and I wasn't that good at surfing that time, so I'd just get clobbered the whole time we were out there, I was also super tired. Then eventually the waves went flat for two weeks, and we weren't doing anything. Just sitting there, and shit got crazy. I had apparently Skyped some homies from SASS talking about lizards, jungle problems, and all this crazy stuff. I don't remember any of this. That's when they're like, "Oh no." They called my buddy's mom. I was down on the ground floor of their jungle house having a conversation with two friends from New Hampshire that weren’t there. At this point, Sam's mom got a call saying that something was really wrong, and then I guess I stood up, started walking in the jungle, and started puking everywhere. I pretty much dropped into a diabetic coma.
They threw me in the back of their truck and took me to this ghetto hospital. It turned out that my pancreas failed and I had way more than lethal blood sugar level. And by the time I woke up my parents were in Puerto Rico. It was crazy. Funny thing was there was this Puerto Rican doctor that did not speak English and was yelling in Spanish, and then I was translating to my mom who is freaking out yelling in English. That was stressful, to say the least.
So I've been a Type 1 diabetic now for a while, insulin every day, all day. It's screwed with my body a lot over the years. It’s been a lot of ups and downs. I got my shit together quite a bit in the past year on managing the physical stuff, so that's been helpful. But all these medical conditions add up and throw in some other hardships in my life, it really beat me down pretty fucking hard, you know? Not that I'm anything but grateful and stoked on all the experiences I've had and friends I’ve made.
Have these roadblocks to a life as a pro boarder acted more as motivators than inhibitors?
I think that's exactly it, it's motivation. When I first got diabetes I didn't even know if I'd be able to snowboard again, then I had my best year ever. It was just sheer stoke and gratitude to be able to do it.
And the threat of losing it.
Yeah, and I'm stubborn and hard headed. I love snowboarding, so I kind of go above and beyond to keep doing it. But recently I ended up losing a lot of stoke because I started forcing stuff. Troubles with the diabetes management came back, and then having some personal stuff that maybe I didn't think was a big deal, so I kept a lot of stuff to myself. I got pretty down for a while, and I thought it was more about the physical health, but when I got back on track again it didn't change this bad feeling, something else was up.
I had this big thing this year where I just wasn't sure about anything. I was really, really not in a good place. I ended up reaching out to some close friends, and honestly, it turned me around, you wouldn't even believe. A lot of my close friends noticed the difference in how I was. The physical health, injuries, all that stuff sucks, but the mental side of life is tough, too.
I can only imagine having to work through all that. I’ve heard the number one cause of depression is working hard for so long that you hit a wall. Your body can get beat down, but your mind is harder to heal.
I think that makes a lot of sense. You want to do everything you can physically to facilitate all this cool shit, but you get to a mental breaking point that's much harder to identify, and it can change everything. I'm fortunate enough to end up being able to talk to my homies and reevaluate everything. I gotta say what turned me around were my friends, my memories, feeling really fortunate for everything I've done, and the family I have in this life. It's sweet. I'm trying to be a better version of me again, and that's wonderful. The number one thing people say on their deathbed is how they wished they had spent more time with friends. It's not about money or success, life’s about spending your time with friends. That's just like in snowboarding, you can have great days by yourself, but days with friends are way better.
Yeah, you're absolutely right, man.
Snowboarding, I love everything about it, but snowboarding has given me the best friendships I will ever have, period. That's it.
Snowboarding has also sent you some close calls and heavy injuries.
A long time ago I had a spleen incident with an old iPod and a wall ride. It was crazy. Whistler Blackcomb built the biggest wallride that had been built at that time. Jesse Kumlea and some of the homies were riding up sliding the top and dropping off the end. The park crew had a tranny built for that. It was really sick and it was like 20 feet of wall at the end of the snow. So I roll up and start sliding across and catch up somehow and fall all the way to the bottom. I missed the tranny and fell like 30 feet. I kind of crunched up in a ball and hit the ground. It hurt so much. I broke some ribs and stuff. Ski patrol came down and gassed me up. I was super high on the nitrous. Next thing I know I'm in the hospital waiting for maybe X-rays, or something like that. I got up to take a piss, took two steps and I hit the floor. I woke up in Vancouver at Lion's Gate Hospital hooked up to all these machines. Apparently, when I scrunched up into a ball before I hit the ground my original old iPod went under my ribs and lacerated my spleen. I had all this internal bleeding. I was in intensive care in Vancouver for seven days dealing with that.
The shitty little room I was in had a VCR and there was only one movie. The movie I watched over and over recovering from internal bleeding was Bill Murray’s, Groundhog Day. That's like an 18-wheeler of irony hitting you in the face right there.
Damn, that can almost ruin any movie. Do you still like Groundhog today?
Fuck yeah. Bill Murray for life, dude.
That's insane. Snowboarding is worth all of though?
That's it, really. You’ve gotta keep doing what you love, and it sucks to get hurt. I'm barely going to be able to sit up when I'm 40, but it's still worth it. That's why they make those old people scooters.
My first time snowboarding I was nine or something. My second time snowboarding I smashed my face on the ice in Quebec. The doctors thought I broke my cheekbone. They called my mom to the hospital, and when she came in, they were talking about putting a metal plate in my face. And that was it, I was like, this is totally worth it. I can't wait to go again.
How do you stay healthier as an older professional snowboarder?
I'm a little more apprehensive, but when the snow's good it's still sendy time for sure. But, do I go punt into some sketchy crusty icy snow? No, God no. I'm also a spoiled little bitch, so I only really like either perfectly soft pow, or slushy. The body's beat up. I'm getting on in my years, and I'm just a snow snob at this point, too. Still, every time I do get hurt, it's usually something super stupid and not gnarly. I broke my back on a rail that was only six inches off the snow. I shattered my collarbone on a two-foot wide box. Oh yeah, it’s the little things that’ll get you.
What would you be doing if you weren't snowboarding?
There's no positive direction that things could have gone I don't think. Honestly, absolutely none. Snowboarding is why I get up in the morning. Even right now, when I'm getting up to go build bathrooms at my summer job, I’m getting ready for the season.
Speaking of going boarding, you always chase winter down south?
Oh, buddy, Argentina summer number 14.
Wa-bam! SASS (Surf And Snow Sessions) Argentina, I’ve been going for 14 years. We also do trips to Japan that are super sick.
That one is new this year, right?
Yeah, we just a little thing with a couple clients here and we'll be doing more next year. Sled access, shred, and sea guiding. Pretty sick.
Do you still have your Pirate Ship trailer?
Fuck yeah, dude, it's in the back. The Pirate Ship ain't going nowhere. Well, okay, that's not exactly true, but it's staying in my possession. It does go places. Doesn't even smell musty, it's weird. It's oddly nice in there. I take care of my trailer. I like the pirate life.
How do you have dual citizenship?
My mom's from Chicago so I've got a U.S. passport. I can do whatever I want.
That makes it pretty easy.
Hell yeah, dude. Welcome home and welcome home. Got both passports. It’s easy, they don't give a shit. I joke around with the border guards, it's awesome, they're hilarious. They don't give a shit.
Have you ever had any problems with the border or with the law?
I went to jail for a few days.
In the States?
In Quebec. I forgot I wasn’t in Whistler plain and simple.
You can't get away with the same shit elsewhere you can get away with here.
No, it was a bit of a misunderstanding, but I do have a mugshot. They destroyed the record though. How'd we get on that topic? Trouble. Oh yeah, borders. There was one time where they decided to really drill me and the lady at one point said, "Well, if we don't believe you, the next step is a cavity search." And I was like, "What the fuck!" But anyway, that didn't happen, which was a relief. I have nothing to hide. I'm not fucking around. I tell them exactly what I've been up to.
Yeah, be straight up. Good communication is the basis of any good relationship.
Dude, one time I was coming back from the States with the Pirate Ship, it's all murdered out with pirate flags and shit you can't even see in it, all black. They didn't even look in it. They didn't even open the door. They were like, "Welcome back to Canada." But I was like, "Seriously?" Okay. That's crazy to me. Thank you, but do you not see what I look like? Really?
Snowboarding's a little different than when we started. Any word of advice for the next generation?
Enjoy yourself. Just enjoy it and be yourself.
Anyone you’d like to shout out?
Mom, Dad, and all the family, Matty, Geeves, Ricky, Eman, Rhett, Brocklebank, Lemay, J Brown, Beau, Wildlife Dave, Punk Ass Steph, Tarik, Dionne, Sansalone, Mike Coupland, OM Bernie, Dez, Nico, Broz, Blue, Johan, Lewis, Heringa, Conway, SASS Crew, John Sang, Travis, Blanco, Burg, Pedro, Skylar, G Funk, Coulter, Robyn, Michelle, Ben G, Bowl U, Trimble, Roach, Fraser, Lepore, TJS, and all my homies. And a huge thank you to anyone that has ever supported me or believed in me, and to every single person that I have ever boarded with. Those are the best times of my life… Snowboarding saves lives!