In five years covering action sports, I’d written a lot about Travis Pastrana. But I’d written—or read—very little about Travis Pastrana. I knew what he did; I knew the records he’d set, the injuries that had plagued his career and the contests he’d won. But I had no clue who he was, what motivated him or who he looked to for inspiration. That’s the side of sports I’m interested in.

What I gathered in quick gets was that he was accommodating, agreeable, a good quote—and absolutely dreaded every minute he spent giving interviews. It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate the press. I just got the feeling I was keeping him from doing something much more … fun.

The first time I met Pastrana in person, at the 2003 X Games, I had such a hard time reconciling the Eddie Haskell look-alike shaking my hand with the phenom I’d just watched tear up a freestyle course, that I was instantly intrigued. This kid was different.

Then, in July of 2006, I flew to his home in Maryland to write a piece on his fabled backyard playground. By the time I left, I knew I had much more than would fit into the story I’d been assigned. When Pastrana was at his best was not when he was talking about freestyle tricks or the X Games. He was the most thoughtful and animated when we began musing on life, what it was like to conquer the impossible, inspire others and face death. He was 22, but spoke like someone so far beyond his age. He understood things about life people spend their whole life trying to figure out.

A month later, at the X Games, I watched Pastrana pull off the greatest feat in action sports history—and one of the coolest things to happen in sports, period. The best guys in his sport believed a double backflip was impossible, begged him not to try it, but he believed in its possibility … and then proved it to the world. When he landed the double backflip, the electricity in that arena could have lit Los Angeles. I knew every person who witnessed the flip walked out of the Staples Center inspired, changed, ready to tackle their own version of the impossible. I’d witnessed his magic touch in person, the way he transfers his own energy and confidence to everyone around him. Maybe, I thought, he could have the same effect through a book.