Ski-U-Mah Life is a new weekly feature from GopherSports.com that will highlight some of the more than 750 Minnesota student-athletes outside of their athletic accomplishments. This week, senior defender Tori Burnett of the Gopher soccer team is spotlighted.
On the shores of Lake Powell in Utah this summer, Tori Burnett was enjoying another blissful night on the road, setting up camp with her brother Derrick following another day of exploring North America’s natural wonders.
In a rare instance with cell service available, she peered down at her phone after the unmistakable buzz of a notification.
“Hey, what’s the plan for Tuesday?” read the text message from one of her Gopher soccer teammates.
Right then, she realized real life was about to set in once again.
Burnett’s travels this spring took her through 10 states and even across the border to Alberta. It’s the third straight summer that the Burnett siblings have hit the road together, starting in 2015 when Derrick graduated from NYU and Tori tagged along on a trip they planned, intending to hike and backpack through the Scottish Highlands.
Instead, when they arrived and the weather turned bad, they shifted course to a three-week journey through central Europe. The best part? Each day, the Burnetts woke up with no particular agenda or plan in mind.
“It was really fun because we had no plans, so we would wake up and be like, ‘Oh, what do you want to see today? Have you been to Vienna? No, have you? No? Let’s go catch this train at 4:00 pm,’” she explained. “It was very much not planned, very spontaneous.”
Last summer took them through their home state of Colorado before this year’s epic journey. It began in Minnesota, driving their mother’s brand new Jeep up through North Dakota and Montana, ending up in Canada’s Banff National Park before trekking southward through Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Nebraska and Iowa, ending up back in Minnesota. It was more than 10,000 miles and one freak sunroof accident along with memories that will last a lifetime.
“We took my mom’s brand new car which we tried not to destroy,” Tori said. “Except for when we were driving from Tucson, Ariz., to the Grand Canyon and it was like 110 degrees and the car is black. All of the sudden I hear an explosion, so I thought we popped a tire and I was like, ‘Oh crap’, but all the tire pressures were fine. It sounded really loud. Then I was like, ‘Did we just lose the sun roof?’ So we pull over and the sunroof is shattered… I cut up a pool noodle and I stuffed it in there and taped it down and taped a tarp on top of it to make it less loud. It worked out alright.”
The younger Burnett has used these trips as a chance to get away from life as a Division I student-athlete. Between her rigorous academics as a physiology major – her interest in science began as a child and she interned this summer in a pharmacology lab on campus – and the demands of a soccer player, Burnett has always needed some time away to recharge her batteries before diving head-first into soccer preseason in August.
“Everyone does summers differently. For soccer we have a really weird schedule. We come in August and have two weeks of preseason and then we start. You kind of have your summer by yourself to get ready and you need to get ready or you will be trampled in preseason,” she explained. “Some people can stay here all summer and be here for all of May, June, and July and work their butts off and be fine. If I did that I would be burned out by September.
“So my way to do things is I run away for the last part of May after school and first part of June. Then I come back and hit it really hard and it has been fine for the past three years.“
Her brother Derrick easily notices the change in Tori when she transitions out of school mode.
“When we start on a trip, it usually takes her a day or two to wind down from student-athlete life,” he said. “On our most recent trip, the switch flipped on our second day when we entered Banff National Park. Her use of the word ‘amazing’ was in the high-teens before we reached our destination, with the emphasis on the ‘maze’ portion of the word being drawn out longer each time.”
Never far from her side is her trusty digital SLR camera. Burnett’s first interest in photography came when she was offered a chance to shoot for her high school yearbook, but flourished when she took a class at the U.
“It really took off spring of my freshmen year here when I took a class, and at the beginning it was just film, you could only change the aperture and the shutter speed,” she said. “It was really making you understand what makes a good picture and how to fine tune it in pre-processing, the whole nine yards.”
She has extensively chronicled her travels on her photography website, including a blog which offers some of the 1,000 words that each picture can tell.
“There are a lot of pretty places out there,” Tori said. “Here is the thing – with the iPhone age, anyone can walk up and take that picture. But it’s like, how do you make that picture unique to yourself? I think it is all about the experience. There is a whole story behind that picture of how me and my brother got there, what we were doing that day and anything else. So that is why the blog is super fun for me, I do enjoy writing. Just being able to paint the story of ‘This is what I am seeing and this is what I was feeling’ and everything that was happening in that moment.”
Burnett is even among the rare millennials who thrive with a film camera – a relic from years ago but something that helps combine her academic and artistic passions.
“That was one of the things that really got me about film, it was combining chemistry and film and photography. So I was like, ‘This is my life. This is so cool,’” she explained. “All of the chemicals that make the film develop, I thought that was amazing so I was having so much fun. For one of our projects we had to turn in two rolls of film, I think I turned in 12. I was having way too much fun with it… I think it is really cool because I can understand it on a molecular basis. I can tweak things into making them look a certain way.”
Her experiences do have a direct benefit to her time on the soccer pitch. The freedom and independence associated with cross-country road trips and itinerary-free European travel have given her a much better sense of living in the moment.
“I think being able to be flexible is a good skill for anyone to have, like on those trips when we literally had no idea what we were doing,” she said.
“Just being able to go with the flow and enjoy every moment of it and especially in those trips I try really hard to be in the present.
“In soccer, I think why we were so successful last year is because we weren’t getting caught up in ‘Oh if we win three more games we are Big Ten Champions,” she added. “It was moreso like ‘We need to play this half really well,’ and just playing piece by piece, day by day, practice by practice, staying in the moment and being very focused on what can I do today to be successful.”
It’s a common theme in sports to talk about the journey, or the process – the progression of an athlete and team as they endure the trials and tribulations of a season. For Burnett, it’s not unlike her experiences away from the sport she loves.
“When you are traveling it is like, ‘What can I do today to get the most out of this experience?’” she explained. “For me I would love to sleep in until noon and go do whatever, but when you are traveling you are up at 7:00 going and seeing everything you can see. Photography for me helps me remember that there is always something beautiful in any situation, you just sometimes might have to look a little harder.”
Derrick agreed with his sister’s assessment of how she benefits.
“Growing up in the mountains of Colorado has instilled in her a deep reverence for natural surroundings,” he explained. “In stressful or otherwise busy times, she will seek out nature as a stabilizing and calming force, and since her travels often involve immersion in new natural environments, I'd say the travel version of Tori is generally a more reflective and curious version of the normal one.”
Tori Burnett’s not sure what her next destination will be. She’ll graduate this spring with her degree in physiology, then plans to take a gap year before heading to graduate school. While a career in the sciences always appealed to her, her love and passion for photography now certainly tug at her ambitions.
“I am enjoying the fact that I can be in these pretty places and just take pictures because I want to remember them versus, ‘Okay, is this picture going to sell? Am I going to be able to pay my rent? Is this picture good enough?’ That would be terrifying and take all of the fun out of it,” she explained. “So, realistically it would be really cool to merge passions and work together.
“People say all the time, ‘Thank you for your picture today, it reminds me that there are beautiful things in the world’,” she added. “But at the same time, I don’t know, we just published a paper for our research that is dealing with cancer. It’s like apples and oranges. I am never bored because I am sitting here doing ridiculous experiments by day and then I get to go out and take cool pictures at night. Like a whole Batman thing or something.”
Whether it’s behind the lens of a camera, in a lab or anywhere else, Burnett is more than ready for the adventure.
Read and see more of Tori’s travels this summer and beyond at her website, http://v-phy.com.
Dan Reisig is an associate director of athletic communications at the University of Minnesota, and a contributing writer to GopherSports.com and Ski-U-Mah Magazine.
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