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The yo-yo used in ways you won’t recognize

Aficionados converge in California to compete in a national championship that is more performance art than child’s play. Have you seen a 'spirit bomb?'

By Jocelyn WienerCorrespondent / October 10, 2008

Spin room: Youths gathered around a table where yo-yos, spin tops, and other paraphernalia were sold at the national competition in Chico, Calif.

Jocelyn Wiener

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Chico, Calif.

Augie Fash climbs onto the outdoor stage at the city plaza here, yo-yo in hand. The crowd is lively, expectant. They know Fash’s skills. Around these parts, he’s something of a legend.

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A rock song by AFI booms forth from the speakers, and Fash, a psychology student at California State University, Chico, begins to flick his yo-yo. His three-minute routine builds like a symphony – only it’s conducted at fiber-optic speed.

He spools and unspools his yo-yo into a series of complicated spirals and lassos and cat’s cradles. At times, it appears to hover in the air above him. Periodically he flashes an impish grin toward his fans.

“Augielicious!” someone screams.

This is not your father’s yo-yo. Neither is it your brother’s or cousin’s, for that matter. This is world-class performance art – Yo-Yo Mas playing a different kind of string. Here at the annual US National Yo-Yo Championships, top competitors fly in from Michigan and Florida and Washington State and proceed to dismantle any traditional notions you might have about what the toy can and cannot do.

Routines involve everything from looping the string around ears, elbows, or thighs to tossing a yo-yo into the air and catching it behind one’s back. Often using two yo-yos at once, they pass over tired tricks such as “rock the baby” (dangling the yo-yo like a pendulum) and “walk the dog” (rolling it along the floor) in favor of the “gyroscopic flop” and the “iron whip” (use your imagination).

“It just puts people agog,” says Bob Malowney, the founder and director of the national championships.

Contest judges give points based on complexity and delivery; they deduct points for tangled strings and loss of control. The young players – almost all males in their preteens to early 30s – range from artsy musicians to science geeks, though there is one college shotput thrower. Most tend to favor a skateboarding aesthetic. Beyond that, they defy categorization.

“I know a kid who’s perfectly normal, cool at school, plays basketball, and he yo-yos,” says Leif Hasle, a preteen from Chico.

As a group, the players are breathing new life into the old toy partly because of technical innovations. The addition of ball bearings during the 1990s allowed yo-yos to spin much faster. The Internet has also made an impact – the YouTube generation now shares tricks with players as far away as Brazil or Japan.

But the appeal of the yo-yo ultimately boils down to this: Most people want to be good at something, to feel a part of something bigger than themselves. That’s as true for floppy-haired boys in black hipster clothes as it is for teachers or wingtip-wearing accountants. Add to that a flair for performance, a taste for competition, and a slightly obsessive personality (some yo-yo players practice while brushing their teeth) and – voila! – a pocket-size toy becomes a perfect pastime.

“I think it’s one of the very few things that crosses gender lines and crosses racial lines and crosses economic lines,” says Jack Ringca, who in 2005’s national contest won the 5A division, in which the string is unattached to the player’s hand. He now manages yo-yo teams worldwide for Duncan Toys.

In reality, lines do exist. Males outnumber females in the yo-yo world by about 100 to 1, says Bill Deboisblanc, the contest’s head judge. Still, Mr. Ringca says, the few top female yo-yo players receive great respect.
To prove his point, he mentions “Bu-ko,” a Japanese phenom. A murmur flutters among his friends.

“See?” he says.

•••

The players converge on this tree-lined Northern California community every year for a simple reason: No city loves yo-yo more than Chico loves yo-yo. International players vacationing in the US consider the city of 87,000 a “must-see.”

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