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.
Then, He Disappeared
That session on the megaramp was two years ago, and what followed was actually one of the darkest, most complicated stretches in an already exceedingly complicated life. A few weeks after the session at Burnquist’s, he crashed on a botched warm-up air, knocked himself unconscious, and had to be rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. A month later, at X Games 14, live on ESPN in 2008, he suffered what is widely considered one of the worst slams in skateboarding history (more on this later), losing the gold medal to Burnquist. That September, at a MegaRamp contest in Brazil, he came up short on a jump and fractured two vertebrae, taking himself out of the competition; Burnquist won again. Over the next year, Way’s marriage dissolved. Then, at X Games 15, he decided against trying to reclaim his Big Air title, focusing instead on a new Mega competition he helped create, the Rail Jam, wherein the skaters launch themselves over the gap and slide or grind on a rainbow-shaped steel rail before dropping onto the bank ramp. He won the contest, but broke his ankle in the process. The injury took him out of commission for months, and then, for all practical purposes, he disappeared.
There were rumors: He’d retreated to Hawaii to build an ultra-private skate compound. He was strung out, addicted to morphine lollipops, and retired from skateboarding. He was reinventing himself as a street skater, riding alone and exclusively at night. He was on TMZ partying at a club. He was spotted in Las Vegas doing reconnaissance at the Luxor hotel, figuring whether he could skate down the side of the onyx pyramid and launch over the Strip. He was in Germany undergoing an experimental surgery not approved in the States. He was flying around the world in Tommy Lee’s private jet.
No one knew anything for sure except that Way had dropped out of sight. The documentary went into hibernation. He missed interviews. Photo shoots were scheduled and rescheduled. When I called to check in, his voice mail was full and wouldn’t accept new messages. On those few occasions when I could leave a message, he never called back.
And then, in early May, Way finally started returning my calls. He asked if I was going to make it to X Games 16 in July. When I told him I didn’t know, he said, “You should definitely try. I’m working on something big. Like, huge.”
“Oh, man,” he said.
“I don’t want to, you know, ruin the surprise. But remember the tricks we filmed at Bob’s a couple years ago? The switch back revert? And everything else? Those were nothing compared to this.”
“Those were pretty heavy,” I said. “No one else has done them since.”
“They were nothing,” he said. “I was just clearing my throat.”
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.
Dysfunction: Part One
I first met Danny Way in the early ’90s, when his skating career was just taking off and my own was both beginning and ending. At 19, I was a decent skateboarder, good enough to tour the country with a very low-level professional skate team for about half a minute. I’d been scheduled to skate in a demonstration with Way, but an injury kept me sidelined. I made a show of acting despondent and pissed, when really I felt spared. He was an undersized towheaded kid with a concave chest and braces, and he scared the bejesus out of me. He had inhuman focus when he dropped in on a ramp, a kind of desperate and almost violent grace. He skated with an authority and poise and aggression that reminded me of a young Mike Tyson – how he would charge across the ring just as the first bell sounded, gloves tucked under his chin and eyes locked on his poor, unsuspecting opponent. Watching Way skate, I sensed that, like Tyson, he had more at stake than everyone else. Which he did.
When Danny was eight months old, his father was arrested for failing to pay child support to his previous wife, and after just nine days in jail, he was found hanged in his cell (it was ruled a suicide but the Way family remains skeptical). After her husband’s death, Way’s mother, Mary, plunged into heavy drug use. Coke. Meth. You name it. With the drugs came a long string of boyfriends who physically and emotionally abused her and her two sons, cruel men who bolted once the mirrors were snorted clean. After a couple of chaotic and traumatic years, however, a good and stable man named Tim O’Dea came along. He introduced Danny and his brother, Damon, to surfing and skateboarding, buying them boards and safety gear and memberships at the world-renowned Del Mar Skate Ranch, near their home in San Diego. (At six years old, Danny was too young to skate the facility, but O’Dea lied about his age.) O’Dea married the boys’ mother, but within a few years the marriage went bust. Danny and Damon were devastated. The only reliable thing left in their world was skateboarding – in many ways, their stepfather’s legacy. “I felt this connection with my board that I’ve never felt with anything else in my life,” Danny says. “Skateboarding is like therapy for me.”
“I remember him as this tiny, tiny kid rolling into these huge bowls at Del Mar,” recalls Damon Way, now 38. “The rest of us were scared, but he’d just go for it. That’s the blueprint for who he became.”
By age eight, Danny’s innate talent and obsession with skateboarding became a source of friction. He’d gotten so good so quickly that he intimidated everyone, including famous pros. Older skaters ridiculed him, ostracized him; one soon-to-be-famous pro actually beat him up. At 13, he trounced Tony Hawk in a skater version of the game Horse. (Even in the mid-’80s, Hawk was considered unbeatable, the Michael Jordan of skateboarding, but Way’s repertoire – executing complex street tricks while soaring above the ramp, spinning and flipping his board in ways no one else had yet conceived – blew everyone’s mind, including Hawk’s.) Danny always wanted to be the first to try a trick, even if it meant getting hurt, and he was starting to develop an edge in his personality, a cockiness born of youth and loneliness and physical ability. When older skaters taunted him, Danny refused to back down. “I had to stand up for myself,” he says, “because I didn’t feel like there was anyone around to do that for me.” Even Damon started bullying Danny when he could no longer keep up with his younger brother’s rapid progression. “[Damon] was always taking swings at me,” Danny says. “It was just typical older-brother stuff, but my only weapon against the physical and mental abuse was to be better than him at what he loved: skateboarding.”
At a time when Way felt “lost, confused, sad, unloved,” he entered his first two contests on the same day – and won both. Industry sponsors immediately glommed on, offering endorsement deals and a version of the acceptance he’d long craved from his family. He signed with Powell Peralta, which was then something of a corporate empire and, not coincidentally, Tony Hawk’s sponsor.
Meanwhile, his brother had started skating with a rougher crew. When Damon was 15, during a scuffle in the school parking lot, he was sucker punched in the temple, leaving him with a career-ending hematoma, and the family had to file lawsuits against his assailants and the school district to cover his medical expenses. Eventually a settlement came through and Damon bought the Rainbow, California, home that he, Danny, and their mother were living in. But Mary’s habit threw the household back into chaos. “My mother had so many boyfriends,” Danny recalls, “dealers who’d beat the shit out of her and my brother and me.” By the time his mother finally moved out, Danny himself had begun drinking and experimenting with drugs (Mary has been clean for the past two years). He was also starting to make real money and was able to buy dirt bikes and four-wheelers and guns – pistols, rifles, shotguns – that he and Damon would shoot when they hosted parties. And they hosted a lot of parties. “My friends at the time were on a pretty destructive path, and I was a sponge,” Danny says. “The easiest thing to do was to emulate the things that were going on around me. I stepped out of my own skin because I didn’t have anywhere else to step.” Although inherently shy, Danny noticed that the more recklessly he behaved, the more attention people paid him. He’d jump from the second-story roof and land on the trampoline. He’d ride a motorcycle on his backyard halfpipe, full tilt. One afternoon, with nothing more exciting to do, he yanked his braces off with a pair of pliers.
Something Revelatory Danny Way Said After Suffering What’s Widely Considered One of the Worst Slams in Skateboarding History
After boosting a 540-degree rotation 20 feet over the 27-foot-tall MegaRamp at the X Games two years ago, Danny clipped his shins on the deck upon reentry, did a front flip, and rag-dolled onto his back-head-neck at the bottom of the ramp. His eyes rolled back in their sockets. He lay motionless. It looked career- (if not life-) ending, and is nauseating to watch on YouTube. The on-site doctor called the ambulance and banned Danny from returning to competition. While no one was looking, though, Danny hobbled through the bowels of the Staples Center and made his way back to the top of the ramp in time for his next run. He nailed the trick he’d slammed on earlier.
As Danny awaited the judges’ score at the bottom of the ramp, an ESPN reporter asked if he’d be able to take his next few runs, given the fall.
“I’m taking every run,” Danny said. His voice was slurred and his eyes were glazed and he couldn’t really stand up straight because inside his shoe his foot was swelling to the size of a football.
Then he said: “It’s about how much abuse the body can take and come back from.”
He thought he was talking about skateboarding.
A Brief Interlude About Fear
Although I’d been hiding the fact that I still skated, I’d long entertained delusions of skating the Mega. But once I was there, I saw the sheer absurdity of my thinking. It wasn’t the scale of the ramp that intimidated me. It was Danny. Failing to land even the most basic aerial would’ve been an insult, like he’d offered me a gift and I chucked it into the trash, bow and all, right in front of him. I was afraid to let him down.
And yet he’s a man who strives to put you at ease. In his car he asks if you’re getting enough air, if you like the radio station. In restaurants he asks about your food allergies – he has many – and then suggests dishes. He gives extremely thorough driving directions, spells out the street names and then repeats the spellings, and you get the sense that he’d take your getting lost personally. Which is how I felt on the Mega – afraid not of embarrassing myself so much, but of embarrassing Danny.
All of which got me thinking about fear, so after his next attempt – where he barely made the full flip and kind of landed on his spine and all of the cameramen nervously looked to each other – I asked if the Mega in any way scared him.
“I was more scared talking to those students this morning,” he said.
He did look uncomfortable giving his speech, like an awkward groomsman making a toast.
“It’s weird,” he said. “Onstage I can’t get hurt, but here, where I could get maimed or killed, I feel totally relaxed. I have a lot of things in my memory that I can dig into and unlock to propel my motivation. Skateboarding is my tool for processing emotion and energy. I try to use it that way. It’s easier said than done.”
Then he dropped in again, slammed again, and just lay at the bottom of the ramp for a long, long time.
Dysfunction: Part Two
In 1989, when he was on the verge of being expelled from 10th grade for truancy and his home life was increasingly unstable, Way quit school altogether to skate full time. Powell Peralta, however, wasn’t ready to offer him a professional contract, so when he was approached about riding for H-Street, a new and edgy skater-owned company, Danny accepted. The move would prove significant and prescient. Soon, the few titanic companies that had long monopolized the industry would fall to smaller, grittier upstarts that appealed to skaters’ insubordinate sensibilities. The break with Powell epitomizes what would become the defining traits of Danny’s personal and professional experience, a pathological need for upheaval and an occasionally sadistic aversion to moderation. He feels most safe, most at home, when he’s risking everything.
No one recognized how predisposed toward self-destruction Danny was better than Mike Ternasky, H-Street’s cofounder. Ternasky was only 22, but he’d also grown up largely fatherless and saw that Danny’s recklessness and the way he punished himself daily wasn’t unrelated to the tumult at home. He knew taming Danny wasn’t an option, but he also knew that the wildness, coupled with Danny’s talent and obsessive nature, could be more than a liability. Ternasky earned Danny’s trust not by asking him to share his feelings, but by pushing him to float higher airs and land more technical lip tricks, to channel his anger and confusion into his skating. Again, think Tyson. With Ternasky’s guidance, Danny won his first pro contest, beating veterans and newcomers alike, and he began collecting monthly royalty checks in the neighborhood of $20K. He was 15.
And then, when everything seemed golden, Danny quit H-Street. He thought the team was getting too big and losing its edge. He couldn’t abide such softness, even though he himself was making $80,000 a year before he could legally drive. For a short period, he skated on the Blind Skateboards team (with eventual My Name Is Earl star Jason Lee), but he never found the footing or inspiration he’d had with Ternasky. He placed poorly in contests and his board sales faltered. Any savings he had from the H-Street gravy train were gone. Once, while filming a skate video for his wheel sponsor, he was so broke he jumped off a 150-foot cliff into a lake for $200. And, like his brother, he started gravitating toward a more dangerous crowd, skaters who would fight the security guards who tried to run them off and then reconvene at the Way compound to drink and shoot guns. “Have you seen Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome? That was Danny’s house when he was 16,” says Colin McKay, one of Danny’s closest friends, his business partner, and a pro skater himself.
“I look back on that time,” Way says now, “and I think, How stupid were we?”
Which was maybe what Ternasky was thinking when he called Danny in 1991 and asked him to skate for a new company he was launching called Plan B. Danny, 17 at the time, signed on immediately, and Ternasky assembled the most advanced and influential team in skateboarding around his star athlete. Ternasky intended to build a skater-centered company that he could eventually bequeath to the elder skaters, ensuring that the nonconformist spirit of the enterprise would endure. Plan B became the shadow version of Powell Peralta, an unvarnished and unrivaled group of skaters that seemed both dangerous and soulful, and nowhere was that paradox more present than in Danny. Reconnecting with Ternasky ushered Danny into one of the most productive and creative periods of his career – even today, there are only a handful of pros who can land the tricks he invented in the early ’90s, and no one skater can do all of them.
Then the bottom fell out from under Danny again. In 1994, on his way to the Plan B offices, Ternasky was T-boned at an intersection and died of head trauma. He was 27, and with the exception of Ternasky’s wife, Danny was the last person to see him alive. The loss gutted him (the initials MT are tattooed under Danny’s left arm, a tribute to his mentor). Even skateboarding, the only shelter he’d known since his stepfather introduced him to the sport, could do little to fill the hollowness he felt. The sport was itself dying, as it had a decade before, the result of increased overhead for skate parks and dwindling sales throughout the industry – board shops closed, ramps were torn down, countless pros sulked into more reliable careers or did humiliating demonstrations at amusement parks to pay the bills. Plan B closed its doors in 1995.
Then, while surfing near San Diego, Danny dove into a shallow break and snapped his neck.
Danny’s Plan B
After he broke his neck – which he describes as “my face pretty much hitting me in my stomach” – Danny was partially paralyzed for more than a year. He went in and out of the hospital, bouncing from one doctor to another, and made no progress. He was afraid to lift a carton of milk, convinced that even minimal exertion would cause more damage. He suffered severe depression and spent most days lying on his floor to ease the pain. He was an invalid at 20. Imagine going from jumping off huge cliffs to being scared of something in your fridge. “It’s like being in jail,” he says. “You lose all your freedom.”
Doctors said he’d never skate again. Danny refused to listen. He read everything he could about spinal injuries and experimented with different treatments. Each failure fueled his obsession. Finally he flew to Hawaii and lived with a spiritual healer who guided him out of his “superdepressed” state not with pharmaceuticals, but with meditation and a holistic focus on mind-body synergy. He made slow progress over the course of a few months, exacting the same determination on his recovery that he long had on his skating. When Danny returned to California, he endured months of brutal physical and psychological therapy. Nearly every day, he thought about giving up, but what kept him going was a vision of a ramp so unprecedented, massive, and jaw-droppingly gnarly that it would forever change the face of skateboarding.
As Danny returned to skating – he won a major contest in 1996, shocking the industry that had written him off as a lost soldier – he began experimenting with the size and design of ramps, testing both the physical limitations and the possibilities he’d dreamed up during his long recuperation. “There were no engineers or mathematicians involved,” he says. “It was all human trial and error.” Which means that until he hit upon a design that worked, he’d try out the biggest ramp in history, destroy himself, then build a bigger one. Between 1999 and 2002, he underwent seven major surgeries. Then, in 2002, the prototype of what’s now called the MegaRamp was erected in the desert. Before the weather eroded it, Danny invited other pros to ride the ramp, but only a select few had the requisite skills – and balls.
Danny’s high-profile stunts eventually gave him enough cachet and cash to resurrect Plan B Skateboards in 2005. He called back most of the original team members and scooped up prodigies like Paul “P-Rod” Rodriguez and Ryan Sheckler. This March, Plan B partnered with Billabong to increase its market value and visibility. “The partnership will allow Plan B to go bigger and stay true to its core,” Danny says. “We aren’t going to make girls’ clothing. We’re going to make the best boards and wheels. We’re going to be the modern-day Powell without selling ourselves short.” In other words, he’s doing exactly what Mike Ternasky had hoped he would. And it was probably because Ternasky would have wanted him to that Danny went to China and built a MegaRamp beside the Great Wall. For Danny, though, it was the means, not the end. He wants to make sure he’s given the sport everything he can, everything it will need to flourish in his wake. His concern isn’t his legacy, but the future of skateboarding.
As Danny was showing me clips of the new Plan B skate video on his iPhone, he said, “With the window of time left in my career, I’m not interested in proving I’m better than somebody else. I want to push skateboarding into another paradigm.”
The new video is called Superfuture.
Some of the rumors hewed pretty close to the truth. Way did go to Germany – not to have surgery, but rather an experimental treatment where doctors inject bone marrow into the joints to rejuvenate them; it worked. And he had been considering a stunt that involved skating down the Luxor in Vegas, and he had been doing a lot of street skating, but he put everything on the back burner to train for X Games 16, which could be the defining moment in his career. He wants to build an ecologically sound skate facility in Hawaii, but that’s a ways off. Right now he’s concentrating on erecting a MegaRamp with a foam pit at the Woodward West Skate Camp in California. The foam pit will help him practice his top-secret new trick, but more important, the Mega at Woodward West will make Big Air skating available to anyone who goes to the camp. It will democratize the genre of skating that has, in Way’s opinion, been too exclusive. He wants kids who spend afternoons at small municipal skate parks to envision themselves on the Mega, and he wants to hit upon a Mega design that skate parks around the country will adopt.
Since his marriage ended in 2009, he and his ex-wife have been negotiating how to raise their three kids in two different houses. There were rough patches, but they’re in the past. Way says, “Everything is chill. No one’s right and no one’s wrong. We’re great friends on different paths, except with the kids. We’re walking with them, together.”
As for the rumors about him being strung out and jet-setting with Tommy Lee, Way laughs. “I am friends with Tommy, and I’ve been in his plane, but he’s sober and laid-back. Partying wouldn’t complement my life right now. What we usually talk about is our kids and our new band. He’s a really wise, spiritual dude.”
“He’s got some stubborn bull in him,” Lee says. “We keep each other going in the right direction. I’m on the Danny Way program and he’s on the Tommy Lee one. It’s all positive. We should brand it, call it ‘Lee-Way.'”
Way tells me that the documentary is back on track, slated to hit theaters in early 2011, and he says he thinks he can take X Games gold in both Big Air and Rail Jam this year, if he can avoid injury. Just as the conversation seems to be wrapping up, he says, “If I tell you the trick I’m working on for X, do you have to print it? Can I just tell you for your own information?”
He sounds keyed up and nervous, like a kid with a secret. Then I realize it: He’s not just worried that I’ll spill the secret to the world; he’s worried that I won’t be impressed, worried that what he’s trying to do won’t be enough.
“We can go off the record,” I say.
“Cool,” he says.
Then he tells me. I ask him to repeat himself because I’m sure I’ve misheard him. I haven’t. And he’s right; everything he’s done before seems like a warm-up, a throat-clearing.
“Is that really possible?” I ask.
“I’m optimistic,” he says.
And then our connection drops. The line goes dead. When I call back, I’m dumped to his voice mail. His outgoing message is addressed to his sons: “Ryden and Tavin, leave a message and Daddy will call you back. Okay, I love you guys. Later.”
Where This Has All Been Leading
I’ve left a lot out of this article. I haven’t mentioned how Danny has twice jumped from a hovering helicopter into a halfpipe, or how one of those times, the first time, he did it with a dislocated shoulder. I’ve not mentioned his four ACL reconstructions, two of which were done while he was awake. Not the fact that he holds the land speed record on a skateboard. I left all of this, and tons more, out because finally it’s irrelevant, which is the definitive difference between Danny Way and, well, you. And me. And most everyone else on the planet. When you add up all of Danny’s accomplishments and trespasses, his loves and losses and the times when he’s been lost, there’s still something missing. And what’s missing – it’s not fear, but maybe fearfulness – is what the rest of us have an awful lot of. We cling to our fearfulness as tightly as we do our triumphs and traumas; we envision these things as the perimeters of our identities, the irrefutable evidence of our capabilities, and Danny simply, emphatically, doesn’t.
Think Picasso, Hemingway, Dvorak. Think Laird Hamilton, Chuck Yeager. And, yes, think Tyson. Consider the likelihood that these men don’t possess qualities the rest of us lack, but instead have within them intense voids, empty and expansive chambers of possibility. Maybe these voids – which the men fill with what can only be called art – are innate, or maybe they’re the result of damage or sacrifice or failures the artists have endured. The origin doesn’t matter. Nor does the medium. True, this is a story of how much abuse the body can transcend, but it’s also the story of pushing not merely the limits of skateboarding but the boundaries of the human spirit, the soul. What’s most inspiring – and intimidating – about Danny has little to do with his greatness or resilience or the sheer ballsiness of his life; rather, it has everything to do with his ambivalence toward those things. While the rest of us stand in awe, rooted in the past and arrested by timidity, he climbs back to the top of the ramp. He adjusts his pads, hangs his wheels over the edge, and drops in. He throws his weight forward, leaning into gravity again and again, trying to gather the speed he needs.
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