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.
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
"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
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. …