Bubba never thought he'd be a fan of yo-yo competitions. And yet here he finds himself, sitting on the edge of a foldable plastic seat in the Seattle Center Armory, waiting in minute-long intervals as one competitor after another enters and takes their space before the three judges.
The music hits like a fist. On the stage before Bubba and some 1,000 other spectators that day moves a young man with the joints of a break dancer. He throws the rotating toy above his head and laces the device into an inescapable loop between his flexed fingers. The crowd waits as it begins to appear like he may not make it out of his own trap. With concentration on his brow and a twitch of the wrist, he untangles the thousand tiny knots in a half second of pure muscle memory. An audible awe comes from his fellow competitors as the burning yo-yo comes to a stop in his hand.
The Northwest Regional Yo-Yo Championships, held on February 24 at Seattle Center, is the largest yo-yo competition around. Home to over two hundred competitors, it serves as a regional seeding ground for the national and world championships. Contestants come from all over the world, but many belong to the surrounding states of Idaho, Washington, Montana, Oregon, and Wyoming.
The average yo-yo competitor is between 11 and 21 years old. They wear an unofficial uniform of a black t-shirt with matching dark pants so as to draw maximum attention to the string. When not competing, they might be reserved, soft-spoken. But once in front of the judges that all begins to change.
Hunter Feuerstein, the 13-year-old Arizona state champion and the son of Bubba’s family friend, has been competing at PNWR for three years. He first got into yo-yo through an after-school class at the local library. Though going professional is rare and amounts to yo-yo design and event marketing as much as performing itself, Feuerstein does have the potential to do just that if he continues on his current track. Like many participants, Feuerstein takes part in two different fields of competition: 4A, colloquially referred to as “off-string," and 1A, comprised of one string, one yo-yo body, and one person whizzing it around in the air.
The 1A portion of the competition is where the real action happens, says Free Hinton, a co-promoter of the event. Unlike other competitions, some of which score the contestants’ ability to control two yo-yo’s at once and is “really just a contest of who screws up the least," 1A is where the sport pushes into new frontiers of performance and technique. The king of American 1A yo-yo is Gentry Stein, a former World Champion and current ambassador to the sport.
Gentry is 6’3 and striking. A gaggle of kids follows his every step as he walks through the Armory. Having already secured his spot on the national stage, Saturday was dedicated to spreading the word of yo-yo via introductory workshops and autograph signings.
Like all amounts of notoriety, Gentry’s too comes with responsibility. “I feel like it’s my job to spend any time I’m not focusing on myself to focus on the future,” he says, referring to his work with a number of younger competitors like Feuerstein. So when he’s not practicing up to four hours a day on his own routine or mixing his own music to find that perfect balance of beat and story, Gentry helps the next generation perfect their own.
Nate “The Great” Dailey, another of Gentry’s pupils, hits the final stages of the competition with the magnetism of a clothespin. Gentry readies himself, cell-phone in hand, to capture Nate’s routine for later dissection. “I’ve been working with Nate for a while now,” he says. When the music begins, Nate comes alive. His technique is masterful, his control of the common toy almost prophetic. The music, like that of all the others, builds into a cacophony of whips and whirls. When the show ends, he knows he did well. After earning first place in the day’s competition and a guaranteed seed in the Nationals, Dailey will go on to challenge the country’s best in a fierce balance of technique, creativity, and passion. Not bad for just another Saturday.