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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?'

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It houses the world’s only public yo-yo museum, complete with thousands of old Duncan Butterflies and Monarch Tricksters and the world’s largest working yo-yo (at 256 pounds, it requires a crane).

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On Friday, the evening before the national contest, Ringca and several dozen other players gather inside the museum to wait out a rainstorm. The museum takes up the entire back section of Bird in Hand, Malowney’s toy store.

Malowney, the museum’s director, is a veritable encyclopedia of yo-yo history. He tells visitors about the yo-yo’s golden era, in the 1950s and ’60s, and about its gradual disappearance from the limelight as hula-hoops and Frisbees emerged. He fondly recalls the day in 1988 when Tommy Smothers of the Smothers Brothers comedy team brought a yo-yo on TV and a renaissance was born.

Malowney started his local yo-yo contest that year. By 1993, it only made sense to go national as contestants began flying in from Florida, Virginia, and Illinois. Since then, the sport has exploded.

“It’s an epidemic of yo-yos, seriously,” says Jeff Mullins, a computer engineer who brought his grandson, David Leyva, up from Phoenix. Mr. Mullins estimates that he’s spent $4,000 or $5,000 on about 65 yo-yos for David, who is a practice-while-brushing-your-teeth type kid. The best ones cost $300 to $400 apiece.


After the museum closes Friday, the contestants flock to the Holiday Inn, which quickly becomes a quirky adolescent utopia. Fueled by Squirt and Fruit Snacks, boys fill the halls with their looping plastic orbs. They yo-yo while talking on cellphones; they yo-yo in the elevator.

Couples leaving a reception weave their way through the throng. The wives smile in bemusement; a glint of longing flashes in the husbands’ eyes.

The next morning, as a gray sky spits drizzle, young Leif Hasle and his friend John Ferre stand on the grass practicing before the competition begins. Leif cheerfully lists the yo-yo’s many attributes.

“It’s fun. It’s out of the ordinary. It’s not something everyone does. It’s entertaining. It never seems to end the fun of it.” He pauses. “And it’s interesting.”

“Yeah,” John agrees. “That pretty much sums it up.”

Plenty of spectators have shown up to watch. A reporter, photographer, and videographer from Chico State’s newspaper, The Orion, stake out the plaza, periodically interviewing Fash. Fash and his roommate – who is also competing – both admit that the city’s affinity for the yo-yo is part of what drew them to attend school here. Fash deems the toy “good for my twitchy personality.”

While on a service trip with several other teenagers, he once yo-yoed at a Mexican prison. He was initially terrified, he says, but the prisoners loved it. As he left, they banged their coffee cups on their windows and yelled: “El Yo-Yo!” That became his nickname.

Late in the afternoon, the day’s most hotly contested competition – the 1A – gets started. A 14-year-old from Minneapolis throws his yo-yo under and around his leg. A 22-year-old from Cupertino, Calif., bounces his yo-yo out of his hat. They do “spirit bombs” and “split the atoms” and the aptly named “boingy.”

Then El Yo-Yo takes the stage. Later, Fash will readily confess to missing a couple moves and repeating a couple more, but to the layperson, all those twirls and throws and (he’s-doing-that-upside-down?) tricks look incredible.

Nearby, someone has stoked up a barbecue. The sky has finally cleared, and the plaza is bathed in warm afternoon sunlight. The music is pumping, the crowd is whooping, and little Chico is loving its yo-yo.