Toy Story: Gravity-defying yo-yo tricks on display at California State Yo-Yo Championships

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SAN FRANCISCO — Yo-yo enthusiasts will be able to witness tricks like the under-the-lifted-leg, throw-the-detached-yo-yo-in-the- air-and-catch-it-on-the-string at the 2008 California State Yo-Yo Championships at the Exploratorium on September 6. Asian Americans seem to be especially adept at these tricks: A quarter of competitors at the national level are Asian American; at world tournaments, half of the participants are of Asian descent.

Japanese players in particular have risen to the top of the yo-yo world. “Japanese players who live in Japan have dominated the yo-yo scene,” said Stu Branoff, who has organized this contest for two years. At the recent World Yo-Yo contest in Orlando, four out of the five major divisions were won by Japanese; the remaining division was won by a Japanese American. Furthermore, the six-time, double-handed world champion Shinji Saito — considered the best in the world — is Japanese.

The popularity of yo-yoing has ebbed and flowed since a Filipino immigrant named Pedro Flores brought the first yo-yo to the U.S. in the 1920s. A businessman named Donald Duncan saw his first yo-yo in San Francisco in 1928 and was amazed at the crowd that Flores drew when performing tricks. A few years later, Duncan bought the company from Flores and built it to become the brand forever associated with the toy.

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Paul Escolar, a judge at regional and state championships and a Duncan yo-yo professional with over 10 years’ experience, said his involvement with the sport is an “ode to my heritage as you can say, a personal connection.” The yo-yo also has family ties for him — his grandfather and father yo-yoed in the Philippines, and his uncles won contests there.

Joseph Harris will be one of those vying for the top spot on Saturday and hopes to bring the glory of the 1960s and 1970s back to the yo-yo. “I want that boom back!” said Harris, a professional yo-yo performer and three-time Hawai‘i State Champion of Vietnamese and Chinese descent. The 21-year-old has placed between second and seventh place each year in the nationals since 1999, when he placed 11th in the world competition and fourth in the nation after only one year of playing. This year he placed seventh out of hundreds in the world competition. His specialty is double-handed play, or yo-yo tricks using both hands and two yo-yos.

Growing up in Hawai‘i, Harris became interested in yo-yoing when professionals came to his fifth grade class in 1998 and demonstrated some fancy tricks. His parents at first had the usual apprehensions — telling him not to hit the chandelier — but then supported him when Team High Performance sponsored him at age 11. At that point he was already playing 20 to 30 hours a week. “As a kid, I was on a yo-yo high, and I was playing so much that my fingers started to bleed,” Harris recalled. “When I saw it dripping, I was like ‘Whoa!’” Now he uses finger tape and wears a glove.

Harris, now a San Francisco resident, also just returned from Japan’s national contest, where he noticed that the Japanese tend to be showy and flashy, with a great amount of flair in their performances, including choreography, costumes and tricks matching songs. But he admits to being a flashy performer himself, utilizing the entire stage and working the audience. In fact, Harris was recently seen lighting matches with a yo-yo on the season finale of ABC’s game show Wanna Bet, where celebrities wager on stunts, tricks and challenges performed by average Americans. Harris hopes the humble yo-yo will gain more recognition and sees a gold medal in its future. “It could be an Olympic sport one day if we actually put our foot forward and focus on it,” Harris said. “That would be great to be able to say that I was part of that Olympic committee that started the sport of yo-yoing.”

The California State Yo-Yo Championship will be held at The Exploratorium, 3601 Lyon Street on September 6 from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

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