STERLING QUINN learned a valuable lesson last year: In all things—including yo-yo—moderation. In the weeks leading up to the World Yo-Yo Contest last August, the 16-year-old string slinger spent hours a day whipping a yo-yo around his parents’ house in Rainier Beach, only to finish fourth in his division. Two months later, he strolled cold into the National Yo-Yo Contest in Chico, California, and put on what he thinks is his best performance ever on the way to a second-place finish. So with that counterintuitive conclusion to his practice schedule in mind, how will he prep for the Pacific Northwest Yo-Yo Championships at Seattle Center on February 20? “I’ll probably practice an hour a day for the week preceding the event,” he says nonchalantly.

Prepared or not, there’s nothing casual about his performances. Type “sterling quinn nyyc” into ­YouTube, queue up the first search result to see that unrehearsed routine from the national contest, and try not to feel tangled up in awe as he snaps, cradles, and zings that little leashed orb around his body like nonlethal nunchucks. Quinn’s specialty is counterweight yo-yoing: Instead of tethering the toy to his finger, he grips it by a small weight attached to the end of the string, adding another dimension of complexity to his flips. Fellow yo-yoer Steven Kinder sums up the beautifully twisted art best: “Sterling’s tricks are Picasso-like.”

Quinn has entered the Pacific Northwest Championship six years in a row and has left without a title only once. (Remember, he’s only 16.) The winner of the biggest division at the world championship banked only $300—but that doesn’t matter to him. “You may as well have some bragging rights, some final product for all of the time you spend doing this.”

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