Commentary

DESPITE A HISTORY OF TWISTED LIMBS AND TORN MUSCLES, DANNY WAY IS FIXED ON PUSHING SKATEBOARDING HIGHER AND FARTHER THAN EVER

Updated: July 10, 2012, 2:37 PM ET
By Tim Struby

Danny Way is dreaming. He stands on the deck of a picture-perfect house on the picture-perfect island of Kauai. A salt-air breeze ripples through a cloudless sky. Vividly colored birds glide overhead. Ancient palm trees as tall as grain silos encircle a sprawling lawn of lush green grass. There are even a few hula dancers in there. (Hey, it's a dream.)

Smack in the middle of the lawn sits a huge vert ramp, bigger than any skater has ever imagined. Well, almost any skater. For the past decade, Way has been traveling higher and farther on a skateboard than any human on the planet. His imagination is limitless.

Still dreaming, Way stands at the top of the giant ramp, shaggy blond hair peeking out from under his helmet. His polar-cap blue eyes widen as he clutches the yellow-bottomed board with the sticker that reads "Ride the Best, F- the Rest." As in real life, the dreamy Way is no garden variety 16-year-old skate rat with baggy jeans. The skater looking down the ramp, amped with anticipation, is a ripped 30-year-old. Picture-perfect.

Leaping from the platform, Way falls for what feels like days, then hits the transition smoothly before rocketing into the atmosphere. Airborne, he contorts and spins and flips, lands softly, then rises again. Way rides the ramp as if he were trying to break it, much as he's done since he was a 6-year-old terror at Del Mar Skate Ranch, just north of San Diego: up and down, harder and faster, face twisted with a fierce intensity. But in the dream, his pain melts away into the clear sky like the blue flames of the tattoo on his left arm.

Pain. It has shadowed Way for much of his life, so much that it's no longer a single word but a string of descriptions that define his skating career. Shattered. Crushed. Sprained. Blown out. Dislocated. But in this dream, Way falls and soars and spins, and the pain disappears.

Then suddenly, men appear, wearing suits and carrying machetes. From the sweat strains on their designer duds, Way can see that they've hacked heir way through the palm trees. The dream is picture-perfect no more.

"What the hell do you want?" he yells.

"We want to make you rich and famous," they reply in unison.

"Really?"

Yes. They've heard the Way legend. They know that no skater is as respected. And they have a plan, involving contests and exhibitions and cross-promotions, TV spots and interviews and public appearances. Suitcases full of money to sell burgers. More cash to sell SUVs. Enough for the house, the ramp, whatever his heart desires.

Only one small catch. The way Way skates, the way he's been skating all his life? Out. Over. Done. The suits want a softer touch. "Smile when you skate," they say. "Look happy." They've got a mainstream audience that will heed a spokesman hocking hamburgers and SUVs only so long as that spokesman is, you know, friendly.

Problem is, Way considers hamburgers poison and believes SUVs ruin the environment. He is positive that his style of skating is what skating is all about. So he can't hock those products because he'd lose his soul. And he can't skate friendlier because skateboarding would lose its soul.

Other guys have cashed in. That's their business. Danny Way can't compromise. Won't compromise. Even if compromising would take care of his wife, Kari, and their two sons for life. And suddenly, the sky clouds up, the grass dies, the ramp shrinks and the hula dancers slink off into the thicket. He is skateboarding's greatest visionary, its ballsiest rider, its most electrifying performer, but Danny Way's dream house and dream ramp are just that. Dreams.

HIS REAL house sits on an acre in Encinitas, Calif., inland. Redwood fences and bamboo stalks and countless Kentia palms give the place a secluded, even tropical feel. Way sits in the yard in late June, watching Ryden, 5, and Tavin, 2, the latter a mop of yellow hair wearing nothing but purple fruit syrup. It's a typical day at Way Manor. There's no ramp, but the garage is stuffed with dirt bikes, bicycles, surfboards, a go-kart and skateboards. Here's where Way barbecues and acts the dad.

And here's where he finds relief.

Danny was Tavin's age when he started pushing a skateboard in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, Calif. When Way was 6, his stepdad, Tim O'Dea, bought Danny and his older brother, Damon, memberships at Del Mar Skate Ranch, where future legends Christian Hosoi, Mark "Gator" Rogowski and Tony Hawk would lead the vert skating movement of the 1980s. But just when Way became a Del Mar regular, his parents divorced.

With O'Dea out of the house and Way's mother, Mary, struggling to get by, trips to Del Mar were limited to once a week. So Danny tracked Damon and his friends through the streets and to local backyard ramps. But Damon didn't want his scrawny loudmouth kid brother shadowing him. "I wasn't allowed to hang," says Danny. "If I tried, they terrorized me."

Adds Damon: "We spent a lot of time together because of skating. Scraps? Daily. But he wasn't some innocent victim." If Danny couldn't win his big brother's respect, he would earn it. A ledge too high? Danny'd do it. A trick too dangerous? He'd try. "My brother was my inspiration," Way says. "The only thing that mattered to me was to beat him and his friends."

By eighth grade, the scrawny loudmouth was turning heads at contests and turning his own toward pro skating. "I knew there was no chance I wasn't going to make it my life," says Way, who wasn't the only one. "I first saw Danny 17 years ago at McGill Skate Park," says former pro Tony Magnusson, founder of skate shoe company Osiris and a member of the legendary H-Street skate team. "He was one of only two people I'd seen in my life with that kind of talent and those kinds of balls." (The other: 1980s icon Per Welinder.)

Both qualities were factors two years later when Way dropped out of school to turn pro. Sponsors were paying him six figures a year to star in ads and videos, and the 10th-grader missed so much school traveling the world that he was about to be kicked out anyway. The money helped to support Mary, but Way paid dearly for the privilege. Skating is 90% failure, and failure means falling. Falling, of course, means hurting. A lot. "If you want to be a good skateboarder," Way says, "pain is part of the package." It's the price every action-sport athlete pays, some more than others. Way's injuries are the receipts of his investment.

He suffered his first big hurt at 9, when he overshot a buddy's backyard ramp and fractured his left wrist. At 15 he shattered his left elbow; he still can't straighten his arm. Then came two ACL blowouts, and what he calls his "year of darkness." That followed a 1994 surfing accident that sent Way headfirst into a sandbar and caused his brain stem to swell. His previous injuries were a skate in the park compared to the buzzing in his ears, the vertigo, the loss of taste and smell, the constant eye twitching. Way saw chiropractors, neurologists, orthopedists, acupuncturists, kinesiologists. He spent eight hours a day for six months in various forms of rehab. He recovered completely, only to mangle his left shoulder five years later when he dropped into a ramp from a helicopter-a first- but fell after nailing the landing. "It's like he has a beef with himself," says pro skater Neal Mims.

The funny part is no matter how bad it hurt, he always got himself out of the hospital or off crutches to crunch his reputation as the gnarliest skater around. He skated for months with that shattered elbow, and won a High Air contest two days after wrecking his shoulder. Thrasher magazine named him 1991 Skater of the Year. He's starred in 20 videos in 18 years. He's broken several world records for height and distance (see page 94).

Way can ignore his pain because it is by now different for him than for most of us. It's familiar, as if it's always been there. So he's found a way to chew it up, swallow it, digest it. His sore muscles and stiff joints remind him daily of the anguished memories he keeps sealed away somewhere. But his single-minded determination and the pure joy he gets from skating allow him to forget. "Pain is like anything else," Way says. "If you experience it enough, you get used to it."

"WHO'S THAT?" asks one of the skaters.

"That's Danny Way," says another.

"What's Danny Way doing at the house?"

The house belongs to skater/actor Bam Margera, who's turned part of his 14 acres in West Chester, Pa., into a makeshift skate park, with a 48-foot rail spilling into an eight-foot quarterpipe. Margera has flown out several pro skaters in May to populate the park's coronation, which is being filmed for MTV's Viva La Bam show. "We watched his DC video and we were like, god, that's so amazing," says Jen Rivell, Margera's girlfriend. "Bam said we have to build something to get Danny here."

Margera's rail/quarterpipe pales in comparison with the ramp that so impressed Margera, which was featured in last year's The DC Video. Actually, nothing in skateboarding's 40-plus-year history compares to the Mega Ramp at PointXCamp in Aguanga, Calif. Danny dreamed it up, and main sponsor DC Shoes (co-founded by Damon) picked

up the rumored $100,000 tab to build it three years ago. The project was a gamble, since no one knew if Way was brave enough or crazy enough to try a 65-foot, 60* drop-in with a 75- foot gap jump to a 27-foot quarterpipe.

Way nailed it.

"I wasn't afraid of getting hurt," he says. "I just didn't want to be out for a month if I did. I landed on the edge of the lip. I got lucky. I didn't get hurt at all."

Can't believe you didn't see the jump on Letterman? Blame Way, who does little to publicize his skating. No commercials. No video game. And despite four X Games appearances, comps are not his thing either. He entered just one last year. "I've won as many as I feel I need to win," he says. You believe him, too, not least because no skater in the world is more respected by his peers. Not Margera. Not street king Eric Koston. Not Hawk. "Danny Way," says 13-year-old street phenom Ryan Sheckler, "is The Man, in bold letters."

Fellow pros recognize that Way, one of the few skaters with world-class talent in vert and street, has always sacrificed his body for the progression of his sport. It's not that he has little regard for safety. It's that he has little regard for consequences. And it's not that no one has ever landed a similar Mega Ramp jump; it's that no one has attempted anything close. "It's the greatest trick ever done on a skateboard," says Jason Ellis, veteran skater and TV commentator.

But altitude alone doesn't explain the reverence for Way. Skating's best-kept secret, as some call him, layers his ferocity with serious finesse. "He can get as technical as anyone," says Colin McKay, another DC skater. "He's got some of the quickest feet in all of skating."

Most important to those who revere him is that Way has stayed core. He's no Tony Hawk, with his clothing line, video games, burger commercials and mulitimilliondollar annual income. Although Hawk godfathered skateboarding into the big leagues-"Somebody had to take it to the next level,"

Way says-many in the sport question the path he took. Way is among them. "Tony went a different direction than me," Way says (the two are friendly but not close). "The path I've taken the past six years has been risky. I've taken a huge pay cut. I can't say the other guys are wrong. It's just not me."

Way fears that skating is losing its edge. Mainstream money means kids can make a killing, but it also means skating, once an excuse to get away from parents, is filling up with kids managed by their parents. Way also believes that skating's current contest format-certain tricks in a certain time-stifles creativity. "As much as tricks are important," he says, "so is defining the environment."

Here's what he means: if the halfpipe is an artist's canvas, the dimensions of that canvas have barely changed in 30 years. There's only so much the most creative artist can do without changing the medium. Way wants to expand it, to add size, shape and height. He wants to make ramps bigger and longer, so skaters go faster. He wants to add rails at the top and walls of varying heights. Whatever you can or can't imagine doing, he wants to try.

And he'll ride it his way, every time he steps on his board, which is why the most mainstream comp of all will showcase skateboarding's biggest change in years. During the Aug. 5-8 X Games at the Staples Center in LA, as many as 10 skaters will compete in the inaugural Big Air event. The event was added for one reason: to get skating's best-kept secret out for the first time since 2001.

Way won't say what he plans for his X Games return, but you can dream. Imagine he climbs to the top of the Mega Ramp replica, where he stands for a moment. He drops down, falling for what feels like days, then lands smoothly in the transition and rockets skyward. Up there, as he spins through the air, his pain again disappears.

If he looks hard enough, he might even catch a glimpse of a hula dancer.

RECORD WAY

Ball sports have all kinds of stats. Running and swimming have times. But skateboarding has just one measure of skill. Going big-both high and long- is the sport's measuring stick, and no skater has posted better numbers than Danny Way.

August 1997

On a vert ramp built with an eight-foot extension, Way soars 16' 5'' above the lip, breaking the record for height by nearly five feet.

April 2002

In the first Op King of Skate contest, six of the world's top skaters create their own ramps and perform stunts for a $25,000 top prize. Bob Burnquist wins by becoming the first skater to complete a full loop with a gap jump at the top. But Way clears a 65-foot gap to set the world record for distance, and flies 18'3'' above the lip of a quarterpipe to set the record for height.

June 2003

For DC's debut video, The DC Video, Way sets two records on one jump by soaring 75 feet across a gap to set the distance mark, then landing and pulling a method air 23' 6'' above the lip of the quarterpipe to add the record for height. His performance is named "Best Video Part" at the 2004 TransWorld Skateboarding Awards. -T.S.