Danny Way and the Gift of Fear
Credit: Photograph by Hugh Kretschmer

The End, Which Is Always Something of a Beginning
Twilight inks the hills of Vista, California. A murder of crows caw in the trees. Danny Way, arguably the world's greatest skateboarder, is trying to catch his breath atop the monolithic MegaRamp. The Mega stands taller than an eight-story building and stretches longer than a football field; it looks like a plywood ski jump, and after each run, Danny is driven back to the starting point in a golf cart. He's alone and battered, exhausted and punch-drunk and discouraged. His odds of riding away from the trick he's trying, a trick that's never been done, are, at best, equal to those of him slamming so hard he has to be rushed into his 14th surgery. That he's more afraid of not riding away than of getting hurt is unquestionable; Way has been appropriating what scares him since childhood, weaponizing it.

At 36, Way resembles Clint Eastwood – if Eastwood were young, blond, and dressed like a skate rat. He's wearing a Plan B Skateboards shirt, DC shoes and baggy shorts, and full protective gear: heavy plastic-capped knee and elbow pads, a helmet. On the Mega he looks like a gladiator – one who's losing.

Here at the world's only permanent MegaRamp, built on a 12-acre swath of land owned by fellow professional skateboarder Bob Burnquist, a film crew is shooting footage for an upcoming documentary about Danny's 20-plus-year career as a pro, and he's intent on finally landing a trick he's been attempting obsessively for months. We're going on eight hours, and for most of that time, Danny's been wrecking himself. Technically, what he's after is a switch backflip revert. In English, "switch" means he's doing it backward, with his right foot forward instead of his left (think switch-hitting in baseball); "backflip" means an honest-to-God backflip, grabbing his board with his left hand and soaring upside down over a gap the length of two school buses parked end to end; and "revert" (pronounced RE-vert) means that at the absolute last moment, he will twist himself around 180 degrees so that he lands riding forward. It's ridiculous.

Now, without looking at me, he says, "Sometimes it can just go sideways, you know?"

I think he's talking about his hopes for this filming session or maybe about how he's been landing, the revert not coming around a full 180 degrees. And maybe that's all he's saying, but maybe not. Earlier this morning, before giving a motivational talk at an elementary school, Way mentioned how there's no television in his house, how his two sons go to a Waldorf school, how his infant daughter will too, and how he and his wife allow very few plastic toys and maintain an all-organic diet. He described, in other words, the exact opposite of his own childhood. Tricks can go sideways, but so can childhoods, so can whole lives, unless you work tirelessly, ruthlessly, to keep them on track.

Absolutely, I say, it can all go sideways.

"But it's good to sweat. It's like there're vaults in your nervous system, where you store whatever pain and stress and bad memories you have," he says. "My theory is to fight fire with fire. You have to dive back into that trauma, go back and do the same tricks that hurt you, in the same place. If you don't process it out, those traumas will find homes in your body, hold you back."

"Whenever you're ready, D," Jacob Rosenberg, the director of the documentary, shouts from the Mega's landing pad.

"Okay," Way says, adjusting his pads and helmet. "Okay. Okay."

And then, seconds later, he's riding away from the trick so cleanly that it looks like he's coasting along on a wave as it peters out. The kinetic beauty, the velocity and power and precision and sweep of it, is magnificent – imagine the sound of a basket swooshed from half-court, the arch of a ball before it becomes a hole in one, the muscular symmetry of a horse storming to the Triple Crown. But beauty isn't even the most interesting thing about what Way has just done. More interesting is how, in watching him land a trick that's never been landed before, a trick that until he nailed it no one even knew was possible, you can see the full arc of his career. What is genius or art or excellence if not the ability to transcend time, the capacity to encompass the past, present, and future in a singular and fluid movement?

But, finally, what's most interesting about him riding away from another trick chased straight from his imagination into reality is that once he's done it, once the cameramen have confirmed that they shot a winner, Way doesn't celebrate or review the video or do anything except limp toward the golf cart. The switch backflip revert is behind him now, perfect and perfectly useless, an artifact of air. He tells the cart driver to go faster, tells the cameramen to keep rolling. He's got an idea for a new trick. He thinks there's still a little light left.