The yo-yos were moving fast. Sideways. Behind the back. Between the legs. Over the shoulder. Competitors vying for the title of New York state yo-yo champion Saturday had two minutes each to throw yo-yos to their choice of music in a bid to impress the three judges.
And they were trying hard to do so. Sometimes they threw the yo-yo, sometimes they threw the string, sometimes they threw both. Sometimes they threw the yo-yo off the string altogether. To the uninitiated, it looked a lot like they were tying the string in knots, until they let it drop and it bounced back to their hand, perfectly rolling up the string.
It was the New York State Yo-Yo Contest, hosted by Coney Island USA and held in the same theater that hosts the Coney Island Circus Sideshow during the summer. The theater lobby was a flurry of activity, with yo-yos flying in every direction, sometimes clattering to the floor, sending the thrower chasing after it. Experts of all ages cracked the string at the yo-yo like a whip, bringing it quickly back to their hand. They threw yo-yos as they talked to friends, traded parts and accessories and taught each other new tricks. Most knew each other, and many came from states up and down the East Coast.
Ryan Elliot, 27, heard about the event on Facebook, so he caught a last-minute flight from his home in North Carolina to attend. An environmental scientist by day, he has been yo-yoing off and on for the last 10 years. “It’s a good outlet for energy and just relaxing,” he said. Elliot also designs and sells his own yo-yos.
The New York YoYo Club was well represented in the audience, with a couple dozen members in attendance. To join this club, just show up at a weekly meet-up in Manhattan, and you are in, said club president Brian Melford.
Melford scurried around the venue with a camera to document the action. Melford, 27, from the Bronx, started yo-yoing nine years ago, after using his father’s credit card (without permission) to buy his first yo-yo online. When his father found out, Melford said, “He told me if I bought it, I better use it.”
And he has. Melford now owns more than 300 yo-yos, many of his own design. He has won championships in Pennsylvania and New Jersey and has competed at the World Yo-Yo Contest in Tokyo, Japan. His day job is with the city, working for a Bronx City Councilmember. Featured on NY1 a couple weeks ago showcasing his tricks, Melford wasn’t competing in Saturday’s contest. Since he helped organize the event, doing so would be a conflict of interest, he said. He also said he is past his prime.
One judge, Mike Scimeca, 19, of Manahawkin, New Jersey, has been involved in the competitive yo-yo scene, as he called it, for five years. “It started as a toy,” he said. “You just keep going with it, meeting people, learning new tricks. It’s hard to put down when you keep going with it.”
Scimeca now judges more than he competes, which he said guarantees he gets the best seat in the house. He designs his own yo-yos as well and is always prepared to do some throwing. “It never really leaves you,” he said. “You always have one on you.”
Competitors of all ages took the stage, but most were teens or pre-teens. Many families came to cheer them on, including the Carboneaus who were rooting for 16-year-old Jerry, who has been yo-yoing for two years. The family – Jerry, his parents, Karin and Mark, and sister Sophie — drove three hours from their home in Westfield, Massachusetts for the event. Jerry started yo-yoing after he shattered his wrist in a bad car accident, his mother said. He passed the time during recovery by watching yo-yo videos. His parents have traveled to a handful of states to watch him compete. With a daughter in dance, Karin Carboneau said that they were used to traveling to support their kids. “I love watching them doing anything they love doing,” she said. “They light up when they perform.”
As each of the 37 competitors took the stage, they would place extra yo-yos on the ground in front of them as backups in case a trick went wrong and the string became hopelessly twisted. For their two minutes, the competitors flung the yo-yos around, gathering up the string to make shapes or toss the yo-yo from one section of string to another. Sometimes they shot the yo-yo up or out to the end of the string, sometimes they worked with one hand close to the yo-yo while the other hand threw the extra string around. Few of them had to resort to the backup yo-yo.
After calculating the scores, Blaise Becker of Marlton, New Jersey was named the New York State Champion. He came away with a gift bag full of yo-yo accessories, gift cards to online yo-yo stores and a crisp $100 bill. Becker, 15, was with his parents, who cheered when his name was announced. Blaise took up yo-yoing five years ago, said his father, Jay Becker. “He won a yo-yo in class and never turned back.” Just a few weeks ago, the family was in California, where Blaise won the West Coast Yo-yo Championship. His mother, Carla Becker, listed the many states that they have traveled to for competitions. “It’s brought us together as a family,” she said.
The families beamed as the winners and competitors took pictures on the stage. Afterwards, the New York YoYo Club ordered pizza and hosted an afterparty in the lobby.
Header image: A selection of yo-yos for sale. (The Ink/Sara Ohlms)