Danny Way and the Gift of Fear
Credit: Photograph by Hugh Kretschmer
A Short but Telling Incident from Earlier That Day Two Years Ago
Danny Way was tardy for his motivational speech at the elementary school. He'd hit traffic on the drive from his home in Encinitas to Carlsbad, California, and then the parking lot was full. After circling twice, he said, "Fuck it," and steered his BMW M3 into a faculty-only slot.

Inside, the principal cleared his desk so Way could unload the skateboards he'd brought; they were autographed for two students battling cancer. The inscriptions read fear is an illusion and make your dreams come true. Way's signature is spiky, like the logo of a heavy metal band.

"Very cool," the principal said. Then he inhaled sharply and asked, "Have you ever done drugs?"

A bewildered expression crossed Way's face, as if he'd misheard the question. "Well," he replied, "I mean, I've tried – "

"We had a pro skater visit last year," the principal interrupted, "and when a student asked if he'd done drugs, he said yes. Our parents were none too pleased."

"Not a problem," Way said.

"These kids need role models. Tell them you've made positive choices and you've followed the golden rule. Tell them you can't get where you are by doing drugs."

"I've got good things to say. I grew up in a pretty dysfunctional home," Way said matter-of-factly. If he elaborated, if he laid out exactly how dysfunctional his childhood was, the principal would likely cancel the speech.

"Very cool," the principal said again. Then he noticed I was holding a skateboard and asked if it was mine.

"No," Way answered sheepishly. "That's the board I used to jump the Great Wall of China."

The principal studied the board, possibly expecting Way to admit he was joking. He wasn't. If non-skaters know of Danny Way, it's because of this: In 2005 Way became the first person to jump the Great Wall on a non-motorized vehicle, soaring across a 60-foot gap, and he did it with a fractured ankle from a previous crash. (The last person to try used a bicycle. He died.) He has never courted the celebrity that Tony Hawk or MTV reality star Ryan Sheckler enjoy, but after images of him spinning a backside-360 over the wall appeared everywhere from the South China Morning Post to The Daily Show, the door to mainstream culture swung wide open. And yet he promptly and politely closed it. Had he walked through that door, the stunt might have defined him. It might even have controlled him, relegated him to a world of daredevil sideshows, and the progression of skateboarding – which for Danny carries the weight of religion – would have been waylaid, if not completely thwarted. The religion thing is apt. He wants neither a pulpit nor a stage; he wants a monastery. He wants neither an audience nor disciples; he wants fellow believers. Jumping the Great Wall of China doesn't define Danny Way. The days alone on his MegaRamp do.

Early on, Way used the MegaRamp to set world records for height and distance, records he still holds. It served as the canvas for his impossibly progressive part in the landmark DC-sponsored skateboarding video. (In 1993 Danny's older brother, Damon Way, co-founded DC shoes. In 2004, a year after The DC Video debuted, Quiksilver bought the brand for $87 million.) Within a year, the X Games had adopted the MegaRamp into its competition schedule, and like that, the landscape of skateboarding was, literally and symbolically, forever transformed. Today, among vert pros, there are two groups of skaters: those who ride the Mega and those who don't. The first group is much, much smaller.

"Tell the kids that if they make positive choices, they'll be able to fly too," the principal told Way.

"We're all good," Way said. Then the bell rang.