Washington's gnarliest skateboard jump? The Canadian Embassy
Only 1 skater has successfully jumped building's 21 steps
The Canadian Embassy is, to a subset of Washington's adrenaline-chasing elite, the Everest of diplomatic missions.
Bones have cracked at its white marble staircase. Untold skateboards have thudded, then split at the bottom of those 21 steps.
And you can bet that D.C.-area street skaters know the vertical limits well, tantalized by the thrill of testing their nerves there.
"They would always just call it 'Embassy,' " says John Francomacaro, one of at least a dozen skaters known to have tried — but failed — to sail from the elevated esplanade to the sidewalk below.
"Some might call it 'Canadian.' You'd hear, 'So-and-so tried Canadian.' Everyone would know what that means."
But only Brandon Bonner has successfully performed an ollie on camera over the 21-stair gap at the embassy, pulling some big air without using his hands, and actually landing with both feet on his board. That was back in 2012, and he's not likely to try it again any time soon.
"Definitely one of the craziest features I've ever done," said the 23-year-old, who lives in Spotsylvania, Va., about an hour south of the capital.
"I was talking about doing it for about two months before I actually went out there to try it. My boy called me out and was like, 'Yo, we're gonna do Embassy this summer.' I said, 'Hell yeah.' "
The embassy grounds are at once friendly and imposing.
Designed by renowned Vancouver-born architect Arthur Erickson, the building includes a facade that's festooned with miniature Maple Leaf flags. It commands prime real estate on Pennsylvania Avenue as the only embassy between the Capitol building and the White House.
Since its opening in 1989, it has attracted skaters drawn by its smooth, flat surface of imported Canadian marble.
"It's just a classic stair-set scenario," says Francomacaro. "You've got right there plenty of run-up, plenty of ride-away."
As Canada's face to the world in Washington, it's an inviting space. Perhaps too inviting when it comes to skaters, who regularly flock to the site.
Embassy security staff are accustomed to shooing them away when they hear the rumble of approaching wheels on stone. One guard recalled phoning the paramedics a few months ago, following one rider's hapless attempt at an ollie over the Pennsylvania Avenue stairs.
"He landed, his legs crossed," the guard said. "His knees just went."
In the list of revered ollie spots, according to local skateboarders, the embassy's stair set is among the most dramatic, joining the likes of the 20 steps at El Toro High School in Lake Forest, Cal.; Philadelphia's LOVE Park fountain and a 25-stair set in Lyon, France.
Indeed, "the Embassy 21 video" is what Bonner is now best known for. He's been stopped during skate tours in New York, California, Florida, Germany and Switzerland, and asked about that trick.
"You're the dude who ollied the Canadian Embassy," they say to him.
Bonner says he's heard at least 30 people have attempted the hands-free board leap. He estimates the height to be about six metres, and the gap to be almost as big.
Stairs are a big part of skating culture, Francomacaro says. He can recite the names of revered D.C.-area skaters who have tried to ollie "Canadian": David Weitzel, Jason Choi, Mark Williams, Bobby Worrest, to list a few.
But there are only so many steps a person can actually handle without risking serious injury.
"When you get into the 20s, there is a limit with what can be done," he says. "Then again, if it looks perfect, then skaters are going to skate it."
Embassy officials are aware of the site's popularity. Over the years, brackets, or "skatestoppers," have appeared on ledges on the esplanade near the embassy's water features, rendering certain sections unskateable or impossible to slide on with a board. The staircase handrail includes similar skate deterrents to prevent grinding.
"The Canadian Embassy discourages skateboarders on this property because a lot of people have gotten hurt," an embassy spokesperson said in a statement.
A metal fence now decorated with a Christmas garland blocks the run-up, but the barrier hasn't stopped daredevils from trying. It certainly didn't stop Bonner.
"When we went up there on a Sunday a while back, we did a little gate action," says Bonner, who enjoys being part of Washington's street skating lore. "Opened the gate up with some tools. A good ol' Allen wrench."
Nearly 35,000 views have racked up on one video of his trick over the set of stairs.
His friend Patrick Brastrom, who filmed the successful ollie, remembers feeling a wave of relief when Bonner landed and rode away. Brastrom doubts that many people will bother repeating the attempt.
"There is no glory left," he says.
Francomacaro agrees there's little reason to perform such a high-risk trick now that a skater has owned it. "It's been done. People are kind of limp when it comes to doing that again," he says.
As for Bonner, he sometimes muses about trying something new at the site of his historic ollie, though one of his sponsors has dissuaded him from repeating the embassy jump.
Doing so without alerting guards concerned about liability issues would be a challenge anyway. During a recent revisit to the site, embassy security descended quickly to ensure no tricks would be attempted.
Bonner later confessed he thinks about it every now and then.
"I would definitely have to leave that as a secret for the skate community," he said.
With files from CBC's Jason Burles