Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, June 22, 2001

Royce Kaleikini, 4, competes against teen-agers in yo-yo competitions.

Just say yo!

Yo-yos fly, sleep and spin
in the state championships

By Scott Vogel

Despite what you might have heard, there is no truth to the rumor that the yo-yo was originally used as a weapon. Purveyors of sham history have claimed for years that the popular children's toy was once the jewel in the arsenal of your garden-variety Filipino hunter, who stalked his prey from trees and therefore needed an object that could repeatedly be thrown down and retrieved with ease. Hence the yo-yo, the name of which may well mean "come-come" or "return" in one of the Filipino dialects.

As I say, this story is erroneous, but that's something you might find hard to remember during tomorrow's state championships at Ala Moana Center, when yo-yos will be flying in all directions, coming dangerously close to the thrower's head, typically at warp speeds.

Periodically, during last weekend's tense semifinals, someone's Walk the Dog would cross paths with someone else's Rollercoaster, or a Baby Buddha would clash with a Split the Atom, the resultant collision a horrible cacophony of spinning string and cracking plastic. Still, it's worth noting that the hunters' target was not some poor defenseless animal but rather the state title, which brings with it an all-expense paid trip to the nationals in California, not to mention the cachet of being yo-yo king of a state whose champions are bona fide legends.

"You want to hear a joke?," says one such legend, Richard Lee, a Hawaii resident who was national champion three times during the 1950's and is now a judge. "The other day I went to a swap meet. I bought 10 yo-yos for a dollar." Pause. "No strings attached."

It's the kind of joke more likely to provoke a rimshot than genuine laughter, but we find ourselves chuckling anyway, hoping to get Lee to dilate on the subject of yo-yo history.

"The old Duncans were wooden," he segues, turning serious when recalling the days when he'd make extra money reselling yo-yos into which he'd carved seagulls and palm trees. "Today it's plastic and acrylic stuff. The strings are better, they spin longer. That's why there were only 25 tricks in the old days; there's 55 tricks now."

Evan Nagao (5) shows one of his yo-yo tricks at the
yo-yo competition at Ward Warehouse.

Just then, out of the corner of his eye, Lee catches a youngster fumbling his way through a Creeper. His mood immediately darkens.

"You guys have to practice!," he barks, shaking his head and giving me his best "kids today" expression. "You've got to pitch it!"

If you really want to talk about yo-yos in the old days, you have to go back, way back. We're talking Greece circa 500 B.C. Several extant vases from the period depict young boys playing with yo-yos, and that's not the only time these toys have spun their way into the fine art world. Four-year-old King Louis XVII can be seen posing with his yo-yo in a painting from 1789. And speaking of the French aristocracy, it turns out that yo-yo-ing was a favorite stress-reducing activity for nobles, a therapy regimen that came in handy during the ensuing Reign of Terror. Panic-stricken royals are known to have yo-yo-ed on the way to the guillotine; Napoleon, meanwhile, attempted to calm himself and his troops by yo-yo-ing before the Battle of Waterloo. (Perhaps the time could have been spent more profitably?)

Until the 20th century, the yo-yo's string was tied to its axle, which meant that the toy could go up and down, but do little else. Once Pedro Flores, a Filipino inventor, began looping the string around the axle, however, it became possible for the yo-yo to "sleep" at the end of the string. This seemingly small change became the basis for the Creeper, Rock the Cradle, Walk the Dog, and all the other tricks on which yo-yo competitions depend.

Tiffini Perry, 7, flew in from Hilo to compete in the regional
yo-yo competition to qualify for the state finals tomorrow.

But the innovations are ongoing, as Alan Nagao noted during a break in the semifinal competition. Nagao owns High Performance Kites, which is ground zero for Team High Performance, a highly exclusive club boasting what is perhaps the greatest collection of yo-yo masters in the country. The toys of today, he said, are highly sophisticated pieces of machinery, sporting ball-bearing axles (which further increase the sleep time) and other bells and whistles. Kids' appreciation of the yo-yo has become more sophisticated too.

"In the old days they waxed the strings -- whereas nowadays, it's like, where's the micrometer?" Nagao said, referring to the cache of tools and lubricants kids rely upon to tweak their yo-yos. "For different tricks, they use a different viscosity of lube. And everyone carries a kit to replace bearings and spacers -- to adjust the gap of the yo-yo -- as well as different lengths of axles."

Proper care produces a yo-yo that spins like a buzzsaw and sleeps for an eternity when thrown (51 seconds is the world record), and not surprisingly, most kids wear a glove on their yo-yo hand ("to prevent burns"). Attending a yo-yo competition these days is rather like coming across a sea of Michael Jacksons in his "Beat It" phase.

Meanwhile, Yuuki Spencer, 12, is demonstrating a trick he invented himself called the Pure Love, the yo-yo whizzing in his hand like a trapped bumblebee.

"His fingers are like asbestos right now," says Nagao, marveling at Spencer's dexterity in creating a heart out of string while the yo-yo spins down. It's the inventiveness that yo-yo-ing inspires that convinced Nagao to get his son Evan involved in the sport. That and a general dissatisfaction with the alternatives.

"I'm really anti-video game," he says. "Especially the ones that involve fighting. And I wanted to give my son an opportunity to play with some more traditional toys. Kids interact a lot when they yo-yo. They talk. They're not sitting alone in front of the TV. It's also very creative. They make up tricks. Evan's made up a dozen himself."


Hawaii State Yo-Yo Finals

When: Noon Saturday
Where: Ala Moana Center Stage
Cost: Free
Call: 947-7097

In truth, this last fact is not surprising. After all, Evan has not only mastered yo-yo-ing with both hands, not only competed at the championship level, not only appeared on the "Tonight Show with Jay Leno," but also accomplished all these feats at the tender age of 5. Tiny and almost unbearably adorable, he Splits the Atom with ease, all the while flashing a telegenic grin from ear to ear. Evan's affability is natural. Others, however, must be coaxed.

"Smile when you do it! Present it!" Lee says to a dour-faced young man who's concentrating perhaps a bit too intensely on Rocking the Baby. "Good," he gruffly concedes when the boy finally forces a smile. The next trick, Lee explains, is called a Dog Bite and it requires that once thrown, the yo-yo is made to sleep on any part of the thrower's body before being yanked back into the hand. The boy winds up, throws the toy and puts it to sleep -- right in his crotch. An expression of pique crosses Richard Lee's face.

"Well, what a place for it," he says, his eyes widening as he checks off "Dog Bite" from the boy's card.

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