COSTA MESA, Calif. -- At one of the biggest extreme-sports exhibitions in the U.S. last summer, Lincoln Ueda soared 10 feet into the air off a towering ramp and spun 540 degrees before landing gracefully on his skateboard. Autograph-hungry fans went wild, as did Tony Hawk, the multimillionaire skateboarding legend and the event's impresario.
"Lincoln is one of the most exciting skaters out there," says Mr. Hawk, who has handpicked Mr. Ueda for the past three of his annual "Boom Boom HuckJam" stunt shows. "When you see the passion and dedication of these Brazilian guys, it's inevitable they would reach the top ranks."
Skateboarding, a mania born in the U.S., has taken root all over the world but particularly in Brazil, where it's the second most popular sport in many cities after soccer. It's producing athletes like Mr. Ueda, 31 years old, who are riding from graffiti-splattered Brazilian inner cities to relative fame and fortune in Southern California, the skateboarding Mecca of the U.S. Although there are no official national rankings, more often than not, there's a Brazilian among the top three at major U.S. contests.
"Brazilian skateboarders are like the American black man was in basketball," says Peter Townend, a former surfer and now a consultant to the skateboard industry in San Clemente, Calif. "They come out of the streets."
While for most Brazilians skateboarding is just a pastime, some are using it as their ticket out. Since the 1970s invention of daredevil skateboarding by surfers in Venice, Calif. -- immortalized in the recent movie "Lords of Dogtown" -- skateboarding has become big business. Last year, it generated more than $5 billion in sales of boards, clothing and related items. The best skateboarders vie for big prize money at competitions and exhibitions around the country and earn more from endorsement deals.
Los Angeles immigration lawyer Carl Shusterman has fostered the boom by taking on a wave of Brazilian immigration cases. Mr. Shusterman has arranged visas for more than 20 skateboarders, mostly Brazilians, under an immigration category designed for foreigners with "extraordinary ability" in fields such as sciences, education and athletics.
One of Mr. Shusterman's clients is Mr. Ueda, who is known internationally for his ability to propel himself four feet higher off a skateboarding ramp than most other pros. "It is the dream of every good Brazilian skater to make it to California," says Mr. Ueda, sitting in his four-bedroom house in Orange County with his wife Cristina.
Their manicured neighborhood is a long way from Guarulhos, the working-class city outside Sao Paulo, Brazil, where Mr. Ueda got his start on potholed streets and bumpy ramps. As teenagers, Mr. Ueda and two friends, Sandro Dias and Bob Burnquist, swooped in and out of dilapidated cement skating bowls.
Today, all three are among the world's top "vert" -- short for vertical -- skateboarders, who do aerial tricks and ramp stunts on the international circuit. Mr. Burnquist, whose father is American, has far outstripped his two friends. He didn't excel at soccer because of asthma and now earns a seven-digit annual income through prize money, appearances and endorsements, according to his manager at Wasserman Media Group. He's also Brazil's de facto skateboarding ambassador to the U.S. and writes letters to help his compatriots with visa applications.
Mr. Ueda is just 5 feet 5 inches tall. He was born prematurely and was often ill during his childhood. He grew up in a small, two-bedroom home where his parents, who are both ethnically Japanese, still live. It has a windowless living room lit by two fluorescent ceiling lights and little decoration, except for a shrine in one corner with Buddhist, Christian and Afro-Brazilian spiritual figures. Jorge, Mr. Ueda's father is a mechanic; his mother, Olga, is a seamstress.
Mr. Ueda began skateboarding when he was 12 after his father scrounged the money to buy him and his younger brother a skateboard for Christmas. Mr. Ueda had just smashed up his bike trying acrobatic tricks and his father was trying to encourage a less dangerous hobby. Before long, however, the boys were racing down streets and jumping curbs. "I thought they might kill themselves," recalls Jorge Ueda, whose own youthful passion was drag racing.
In 1988, at 14, Mr. Ueda was crowned Brazil's amateur "vert" champion. His first sponsor was a Guarulhos surfing-and-skateboarding shop, which let Mr. Ueda practice free at its skating facility and keep the T-shirts he wore during competitions. Mr. Ueda's father drove him to local competitions in a beat-up Volkswagen Beetle.
One year later, Mr. Ueda's father traveled overseas for the first time to accompany his son to a tournament in Munster, Germany. A Brazilian shoe company paid part of the airfare. Mr. Ueda placed an unexpected fourth and used the $500 prize money to pay the hotel bill. He made it onto the cover of the Sao Paulo supplement to Brazil's most influential newsweekly, "Veja."
In 1992, after shoulder injuries that required surgery and an economic recession, Mr. Ueda abandoned skateboarding and went to work with his father. When "Veja" published an article about the fate of its cover stars two years later, the magazine featured a picture of Mr. Ueda, wrench in hand, peering into a car engine. "Grease seeped into skateboarding king's dream," the photo caption said.
But after recovering from his surgery, Mr. Ueda began entering tournaments again. A tipping point in his revival came in 1996, when he reached the finals of the "Slam City Jam," a major competition in Vancouver. Mr. Ueda moved to California in 1998 and slept on Mr. Burnquist's floor. "I knew enough English to order some food," recalls Mr. Ueda, who now speaks English with only a very slight Portuguese accent.
He placed well in competition after competition and always obliged requests for autographs. "I started making money and storing it under my mattress," says Mr. Ueda.
Today, his sponsors include clothing company Hurley International, which is owned by Nike Inc., Element Skateboards, Etnies shoes and Electric sunglasses. Mr. Ueda also has caught the entrepreneurial bug. He started a skate-wheel company called Type-S with Sergei Ventura, an American skateboarder. They have invested about $50,000 but haven't yet turned a profit.
The $180,000 Mr. Ueda says he earns each year pales in comparison to what Brazilian soccer exports earn in Europe. It's also a far cry from what bigger stars like Messrs. Hawk and Burnquist earn. But for Mr. Ueda, who doesn't have a college degree, it's a mint: His father, who is diabetic, earns less than $1,000 a month. Mr. Ueda pays for his father's medical insurance and two years ago he paid off the remaining $10,000 owed on the auto shop.
Mr. Ueda thinks he'll be on the pro circuit for another five years, although he says he'll ride the ramps as long as his body can take it. In the long-term, he says, "I hope my business flourishes so that I can sponsor young Brazilian skateboarders." Earlier this year, Mr. Ueda earned his green card.