IN 214 B.C., during the Qin Dynasty, China's first emperor commanded the construction of the Great Wall to prevent enemies from getting into the country. Some two thousand years later, Danny Way passed over China in a plane, looked out the window and thought to himself, Hey, wouldn't that be a good landmark to jump? ¬∂ The answer, most would say, is no way. But skateboarding's most innovative rider is determined to find new avenues to keep the sport progressive and, as he puts it, "interesting." On July 9, the 31-year-old pro will attempt a great leap forward over the ancient structure. Carrying a speed up to 55 mph, Way will ride down a 65-foot-high ramp, soar 70 feet over a section of the wall and land on the other side, where he will immediately go down a 40-foot-high landing ramp, then shoot up a 30-foot-high quarterpipe. If all goes as planned, Way, who's from Encinitas, Calif., will set three Guinness World Records--for longest distance jumped, highest air on a vert pipe and fastest speed--using the biggest skate ramp ever built. "No [skater] wants to do that. Everyone's scared of dying," says pro vert rider Jason Ellis of the wall jump. "You have to be f------ crazy and have a lot of confidence. Danny is a freaking madman. But there's no doubt in my mind that he'll make it."
This is an article from the June 27, 2005 issue
To a skater who once jumped 35 feet out of a helicopter onto a vert ramp, the Great Wall doesn't seem such a formidable obstacle. "For Danny to jump the Great Wall, that's nothing," pro vert rider Colin McKay told SI last year. "If he says it's possible, then it's going to happen." In February, Way and his ramp designer, John (J.T.) Tyson, made a trip to Beijing and scouted their proposed site at Juyongguan Pass, 30 miles from the Forbidden City. After getting governmental clearance, Way had to postpone the stunt three times over two months because of production issues. "I had him booked on David Letterman after the last [scheduled] jump, and the other guest was Tom Cruise," says Way's publicist, Valerie Michaels. "You can imagine how bummed out I was."
The hype, though, guarantees that thousands will show up at Juyongguan Pass to watch Way. The pass, a major tourist spot, was once a crucial imperial military post near China's northern border. Way will have the synthetic takeoff ramp set up on one side of the wall and the big-air quarterpipe erected in a stone courtyard on the other side, below a temple that stands atop the wall. The $1.7 million spectacle, backed by a private company, the Nevada-based Global Village Media Group, will be broadcast live in China, Europe, Australia and the U.S.
Although Way will be the first skater to attempt the Great Wall, other aerialists have made it over the landmark. In 1992 Ko Shou-liang, a celebrated stuntman and martial arts star from Taiwan, made history when he became the first to clear the wall on a motorcycle. Soaring 180 feet over the wall 93 miles north of Beijing aboard a 250-cc bike, the Chinese Evel Kneivel landed on a giant foam pad. Afterward he held a glass of champagne and said, "I wish I had 10 ladies here to celebrate with me."
The following year British daredevil Eddie Kidd promised that his motorcycle jump would be even more spectacular. More than 60,000 people gathered to watch Kidd fly over a steeper and more precarious section of the wall in Simatai, a mountainous region 75 miles northwest of Beijing. He gripped the handlebars, landed on a 100-foot ramp and crashed into a barrier of cardboard boxes at the end. Kidd, who had jumped over 10 buses in a Beijing stadium two days before, called the stunt "one of the most terrifying experiences I've had."
Then the inevitable happened. In 2002 a cyclist from Shaanxi Province attempted the wall on his mountain bike. Wang Jia Xiong, 30, cleared the crossing at Tianjin's Huangya Pass, 55 miles northeast of Beijing, but tumbled from his bike in midair. Wang fell more than 50 feet, landing headfirst, and died later that day.
Way won't get a chance to test the Great Wall ramp until he gets to China. He has seen prototypes and says he is confident that his preparations will result in a safe landing. He has spent the past two years practicing on the Mega Ramp, a towering structure featuring a takeoff ramp and a landing ramp set 55 feet apart and another pair with a 75-foot gap. The Mega Ramp, which Way built in Aguanga, Calif., in 2003 as a way to push the limits of skateboarding, is not unlike the setup he'll use in China. "I'm going with the accumulation of trial and error," he says of his Great Wall jump. "I don't have engineers or physics involved. This is knowledge obtained by experience."
When pro skaters first heard about the Mega Ramp, they questioned Way's sanity. "I told him, 'You're a freaking idiot,'" Ellis says. "It's going to be a big waste of money. You're going to chicken out.'"
Instead, using the Mega Ramp, Way blew away the skateboarding world in June 2003 when, in one continuous run, he set records for distance jumped (75 feet) and height out of a vert pipe (23' 5"). Last summer he took his big-air show on the road at the X Games in Los Angeles. As five other pro riders in the event struggled to muster the cojones to clear the 75-foot gap, Way flew across to win the gold, hitting 44 mph and breaking his own distance record by five feet in the process. "Danny's changing the world of skateboarding," McKay says. "He has created the boundary of what's believable and imaginable."
With the Mega Ramp, Way has also forced skateboarding to become more physical and rigorous. Little things that go wrong on an average vert pipe can mean big problems on the Mega Ramp. "The impact is brutal. The day after you skate, you're 10 times sorer than normal," Ellis says. "When you skate and land, you can feel your skin melting through your shoes. When you bail, it compresses your back and stomach." To tackle the Mega Ramp, Way rides a board that is three inches longer and a half-inch wider than typical decks. "There's only so much g-force that your legs can handle," he says. "There's a certain sweet spot you have to hit. If there's too much, you'll buckle. If it's too little, you get lost on the ramp. It's like riding a mountain."
While most skaters bold enough to ride the Mega Ramp fly over the gaps going straight, Way prefers to do a 360 spin. "I think it's harder to keep your board straight for 80 feet than it is to spin for 80 feet. As far as a 360 goes, it keeps my board stabilized," he explains.
In pushing his limits, Way has taken a few beatings. He has undergone eight knee surgeries in the last five years; his left ACL alone has been reconstructed three times. Knowing that his body won't hold up to the hits of the big-air ramp forever, Way has mentored several younger stars, such as 15-year-old Lyn-z Adams Hawkins and 11-year-old Taylor Smith, who both recently cleared the gap on the Mega Ramp. "This is the new generation of kids coming up. They're going to be used to seeing this stuff and not know any different," Way says.
Perhaps, but in taking on the wall, Way remains the pioneer. He has chosen to jump in a spot with sweeping hillsides and a dramatic three-tiered pavilion in the background. "I just want to have a couple of photos for my personal diary," he says. "Aesthetically, the photos are going to be so cool. That's enough right there to make it worth it."
THE GREAT LEAP FORWARD
Danny Way plans to build a great ramp at the Great Wall and on July 9 take off on a 55-mph run that will carry him over a section of the wall to set records for the longest leap, highest air and fastest speed in a skateboard jump.