California skateboarder Eddie Elguera is in Birmingham, Alabama—not exactly the skateboarding capital of the world.

But atop an 11-foot-high skateboard ramp, he is right at home. To skateboarders throughout the country (who like to call themselves “skaters,” for short), he is something of a legend. They call him El Gato, the cat, because when it comes to pulling off daring skateboard tricks, he always lands on his feet.

Elguera, 30, perched like a cat, peers over the edge of his skateboard, rests his hands on his knees, and concentrates, as a crowd of Birmingham youths look on.

On the stage below, a fellow skateboarder, microphone in hand, asks for quiet, explaining that Eddie is about to do a 720° Elguerial—“spinning two times in the air and landing backwards.”

The music stops. The crowd falls silent. Eddie takes a quick look below, moves his right foot to the front of the board, and plunges—board and all—straight down. Atop the opposite end of the wooden half-pipe, he attempts the trick he created 12 years ago.

He flips up to a right handstand. Grabbing the ramp’s edge, his board and body flying over his head, he pivots two full rotations. Then, like a cat, Eddie lands smoothly back on the ramp.

The hard-to-please audience of youths now erupts. Eddie smiles bashfully and takes the microphone.

“When I first met him he could hardly speak,” explains his pastor, Jim Cobrae. “Even now, you can tell by his personality that he is shy—until you give him a microphone.”

The crowd is quiet. “A lot of you might know me and a lot of you might not,” Eddie begins. “But in 1979 and 1980 I was the world champion and …” The audience interrupts him with applause. He smiles, shakes his head slightly, and waves their cheers away.

“If you build your ...

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