Most of Danny Way's friends and fans who gathered Tuesday night inside Hollywood's Cinerama Dome for the West Coast screening of "Waiting for Lightning" already knew that the death of his mentor Mike Ternasky had a profound impact on the young skateboarder.
What many of them did not know, however, was that Ternasky, who headed up H-Street before co-founding Plan B Skateboards in 1991, was just one of three father figures who vanished from Way's life. Fortunately for Way, he found a way to bypass the voids created by those losses. He rode a skateboard.
To be sure, the feature-length documentary crafted by director Jacob Rosenberg and his filmmaking partners at Bandito Brothers, showcases plenty of Way's groundbreaking skateboarding. Its most gripping storyline unpacks the logistics of Way's 2006 launch over the Great Wall of China (while riding on a grotesquely mangled right ankle from a practice jump gone horribly wrong). But even the dramatic buildup to that unprecedented feat is nearly forgotten during the film's deftly woven segments detailing Way's tumultuous upbringing in Southern California, where his malleable existence swung violently between the freedoms of playing in the outdoors and the instabilities of his life at home.
By the time Way met Ternasky, his biological father was dead and his stepdad -- a kind and adventurous surfer who built Way his first skateboard when he was 3 -- had moved out. As Way advanced through the skate ranks, he found a new father figure in Ternasky, a motivating team leader whom DC Shoes co-founder Ken Block says "was good at putting people in situations where they succeeded."
As a young filmer working on Plan B's "Questionable" video, Rosenberg was also taking flight from beneath Ternasky's wing, a place of nurturing influence still apparent today, 18 years after the traffic accident that killed him.
"This film is Mike T's legacy," Rosenberg told ESPN.com an hour before the screening, pulling a photograph of Ternasky from the breast pocket of his suit coat. "We wouldn't be here if it wasn't for him. I feel like I'm giving a gift back that he gave to me."
Not long after Ternasky's sudden death, a surfing accident left Way with extensive neck injuries and -- between waves of grief and debilitating physical pain -- he nearly threw in the towel on his skateboarding career. This was the darkest time of his life, Way says in the film. It was also the time that shaped deeply the skateboarder he would become. After a long and incredible convalescence, Way's return to physical and emotional strength seemed to gift him with knowledge of his place in the world. Skateboarding would never be the same.
What Way has achieved since then -- a prolific list of record-breaking stunts, rare accolades, and the pioneering of territories long thought impenetrable -- moves the film toward its conclusion, topped off with a three-minute skate sequence at his all-new superstructure in Hawaii. But ultimately, it's not about the skating. Rather, the film achieves what all good stories ought to. It reminds us of the deeply personal, universal struggles.
At its core, says Bret Anthony Johnston, the director of creative writing at Harvard, who helped develop the film's story and structure, "Waiting for Lightning" is about what happens after you fall off that metaphorical skateboard. "It's about that commitment to getting back up."
If Way can get back up, so can we. And after the screening, the superhuman skateboarder, that piece of iron with a heart, climbed onstage to thank the men and women in the audience who have inspired him over the years, on his board and off. "I feel like I'm just like everyone else here," he said.