The World on a String

Hawai‘i yo-yo phenom Evan Nagao throws for gold at the world championship in Iceland
Story by Shannon Wianecki. Photos by Bryan Derballa.

Yo-yo players have invaded Iceland. Armed with spinning orbs, they’re everywhere across the Nordic Island nation: timing their tricks to geothermal eruptions at Ceysir, posing by hunks of blue ice adrift in the Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon and soaking in various sundlaugar (public swimming pools) in the heart of Reykjavik, Iceland’s charming capital.

Two teenage yo-yoers stage an impromptu demonstration in front of Hallgrímskirkja, the Modernist church steeple that serves as Reykjavík’s compass needle. With a flick of their wrists, the boys unleash a dizzying stream of tricks: complicated cat’s cradles, improbable tosses and lightning-speed loops behind their backs. At times the yo-yos seem to float on a loose calligraphy of string. The audience winces when one yo-yo appears tangled beyond recovery—but no, its master holds up a palm and the disc snaps obediently home.

Clearly these aren’t casual players. Nor are their yo-yos simple toys. The metallic discs wound with DayGlo string are—no joke—machined as precisely as space shuttle instruments. Onlookers can’t help but wonder: Has yo-yoing turned from kids’ game to extreme sport? This is the time and place to find out. The best of the best, the yo-yoing elite from around the globe have migrated to the Land of Fire and Ice for the 2017 World Yo-Yo Contest. Among them is a crowd favorite, a rising star from Hawai‘i.

Hawai‘i’s own Evan Nagao performs yo-yo tricks outside of Reykjavík’s Harpa concert hall, where the 2017 World Yo-Yo Contest was held last August. His father Alan Nagao (behind Evan) is himself a heavyweight in the yo-yo world.

Evan Nagao can’t help but practice tricks while waiting for his lunch. At a restaurant perched at the edge of Reynisfjara’s black-sand beach, the amiable 21-year-old from Honolulu pulls out a pair of yo-yos and starts slinging two-handed shoot-the-moons. Outside, orange-beaked puffins launch themselves from sea cliffs into the roiling Atlantic. The waiters stare at Evan. Instead of scolding him for endangering customers, they bring him a free ice cream.

Evan is universally adored by yo-yo devotees and those new to the sport. He performs with plenty of heart, and his routines always include unexpected, experimental elements. For starters: Most top-level “throwers” (in yo-yo lingo) choreograph their contest routines to trap and dubstep—dizzyingly fast electronica with lots of sound cues; Evan prefers songs with deeper appeal. At the recent European Yo-Yo Championship in Slovakia, he knocked tricks out to the rock classic “Free Bird.” He won the contest, receiving “above excellent” for his music choice and prompting sportswriter James Dator to gush: “Evan Nagao is a national treasure. … This is three minutes of America dis-tilled into a single routine, and I want it injected directly into my veins.”

Pure injections of yo-yo glory—that’s what has brought Evan and the horde of throwers to Iceland. The idea of hosting the world contest here began as a joke between friends. After all, the sparsely populated country has just two pro players, Óskar Sigurhansson and Páll Gumundsson. But their bid—a sumptuous video montage of yo-yo tricks performed at the edge of waterfalls and glaciers—caught the International Yo-Yo Federation’s attention. When team Iceland snagged the world-class Harpa concert hall as a venue, the deal was sealed.

The yo-yo ranks among humankind’s oldest toys, alongside dolls, sticks and balls. Chinese children likely played with yo-yos some three thousand years ago before the toy spread to India, Egypt and beyond.

Reykjavík is an accommodating destination; its walkable streets are lined with a crayon box of painted corrugated steel houses that Icelanders rent out to the growing throng of visitors. During August the sun barely sets. Snow is missing from the fjords across Faxa Bay, but lopapeysa (Icelandic wool sweaters) are still necessary to fend off gusts that dip into the forties. At the north edge of the city, Harpa glitters like a multifaceted jewel. Its honeycomb windows reflect the sea and sky, with tinted panes that recall the northern lights. Home to Iceland’s opera and symphony, it’s a sophisticated setting for a bunch of teens tossing toys.

On the contest’s opening day, adolescents in skinny jeans and sneakers flood Harpa’s voluminous lobby. They ditch their backpacks with parents, greet long-distance friends and immediately start twirling their favorite stress relievers between their fingers. Tourists stop to gawk, while their children eyeball the fluorescent yo-yos, stickers, holsters and other paraphernalia piled high on vendors’ tables. A man wearing a “Yo-Yo Instructor” t-shirt catches a young girl’s eye and nonchalantly skips a bright red yo-yo along the floor toward her—the classic “Walk the Dog” trick. “Here,” he says, handing her the toy. “You try.” And that’s how it starts. She might get hooked and later recall this day as the beginning of a lifelong passion.

The yo-yo ranks among humankind’s oldest toys, alongside dolls, sticks and balls. Chinese children likely played with the first yo-yos some three thousand years ago before passing them on to India, Egypt and beyond. Ancient Grecian vases depict yo-yos. French soldiers in the 1700s used the toy, called a joujou or bandalore, as stress relief to unwind between battles. Even Napoleon gave it a whirl. After Spanish galleons brought bandalores to the Philippines, islanders carved their own version out of buffalo horn. They called it yóyo, an Ilocano word meaning “come-come.”

“Kids can be shy, but when it comes to the yo-yo, they break out of their bubbles to share tricks,” says the instructor, Hans “Yo-hans” Van Dan Elzen. He found his first yo-yo in a friend’s drawer in 1987. Back then, before the internet, the only way to learn tricks was to find someone willing to teach you. Yo-hans learned to “Split the Atom” step by excruciating step over the phone and later got a job demonstrating it for Playmaxx, a large yo-yo manufacturer. By age 26 he’d been to twenty-six countries spreading the yo-yo gospel in schools, parks and shopping malls.

Yo-yoing is the ultimate accessible sport: It doesn’t require any particular physique. The equipment is inexpensive and pocket-sized. Anybody can pick up a yo-yo and, with a Herculean amount of practice, become a champion player. That said, the pros gathered here in Reykjavík fit a rather narrow profile: between 10 and 26 years old and predominantly male. Of the two hundred registered competitors, only twelve are female. The largest contingents have come from the United States, Japan and the Czech Republic; smaller groups are here representing Mexico, Indonesia, Israel and South Africa.

Of the millions of yo-yoers around the globe, maybe ten thousand are truly enthusiastic, says Yo-hans. Of those, around a thousand compete professionally. The leap from hobbyist to high-level player is steep. Mind-bending maneuvers like “Ladder Escape” and “Suicide Chopsticks” involve dozens of intricate finger manipulations, tying and untying of knots, and reversals in direction—all while keeping the yo-yo zipping along with momentum. To master these tricks, devout —okay, obsessed—players practice four, even eight hours a day. “Yeah,” Yo-hans smiles. “A lot of these kids spend their days locked in their rooms or garages practicing tricks.”

In return for this near-fanatic devotion, the humble yo-yo offers the possibility of world travel and minor celebrity. Nail a tough trick on YouTube, and your video stands a good chance of going viral. While top yo-yoers don’t win monetary prizes, they do have some financial incentives. Manufacturers sponsor star players and invite them to design signature yo-yos; they receive commissions from each sale. Yo-hans managed to turn his yo-yo habit into a career. After several years repping for Playmaxx, he started his own company, YoYoFactory, which sponsors hotshots like Shu Takada of Japan and Evan Nagao of Hawai‘i.

Yo-hans can’t wait to watch his team electrify Iceland. “When Evan steps on the stage, there’s energy, goosebumps. He brings a lot of character to the stage. It’ll be the most entertaining thing you’ll see all weekend.”

Shion Araya of Japan defended his first-place title to win a second consecutive contest. Both Araya and Nagao compete in the 1A Division, distinguished by tight, artistic yo-yo routines at hyper-speed. 

Evan was probably destined to play yo-yo. He was born during the height of the 1990s yo-yo craze, to the man responsible for it. “Evan’s first word wasn’t mom or dad. It was yo-yo,” says his father, Alan Nagao, who’s traveled with him to Iceland. “He would sleep with his yo-yos tied to his fingers.”

Alan is a charismatic entrepreneur who overcame a rough start. Exposed to the drug thalidomide in utero, he was born missing a leg and some fingers. By necessity or choice, he became the kind of person who sees obstacles as opportunities.“Being disabled, I didn’t have a lot of sports I could do in school,” Alan says. “So I enjoyed kite flying and yo-yos and things that didn’t require running.” In 1982 he opened High Performance Kites in Honolulu and began flying competitively.

Alan noticed a spike in yo-yo sales in the early ’90s and stocked more spinning toys. He hosted yo-yo demonstrators from the Mainland and developed the “trick ladder,” a testing system to encourage beginning players to progress. “My objective was to give kids an alternative to the violent video games that were so popular,” says Alan. As kids mastered tricks, he watched to see whether they had potential to go professional. He put together the first all-star yo-yo team. As Team High Performance, young yo-yoers from Hawai‘i traveled around the globe competing in contests and teaching tricks.

“They were superstars, the most famous yo-yo kids in the world,” says Alan. “They had trading cards and uniforms with their names embroidered on them. They even became cartoon characters in Japan.” Alan helped coordinate a massive yo-yo pro-motion at the Tokyo Toy Fair in 1998. Seventy thousand kids (you read that right) came to watch Team High Performance ricochet, dodge, feint, twirl and dance with tiny spinning rounds tied to their fingers. THP’s pro spinners were just kids themselves, age 10 to 16, but they influenced a generation. More yo-yos were sold that year than any other in history: ten million in Japan and another twenty million in the United States. The following year, Hawai‘i hosted the World Yo-Yo Contest. This should have been a celebratory culmination of Alan’s efforts, but his yo-yo empire had grown too big too fast. By 2003, Team High Performance disbanded.

“We’re very, very focused on playing with yo-yos,” says Nagao. “We joke that it’s mild autism. The community is tight, and we’re all a little bit strange.” Left to Right: Gentry Stein, the 2014 world champ; Nagao; Chloe Monsonego of France.

Meanwhile, little Evan had shown genuine aptitude for yo-yoing. Before he could walk he was throwing tricks with a special, toddler-sized yo-yo. He was just two years old when he performed at the US National Yo-Yo contest in 1998. Alan carried him on and off stage. The adorable prodigy next appeared on the Hawaiian Moving Company (a local program), Ripley’s Believe It or Not! and Ellen DeGeneres. Jay Leno had no trouble coaxing an entertaining performance out of the sweet-faced four-year-old on The Tonight Show. “He didn’t even fit on the chair,” says Alan, still beaming with pride all these years later. “His feet were just wiggling off.”

Evan kept a yo-yo in his pocket through-out his school years, periodically entering contests. He made his first bid as a serious competitor three years ago and has consistently placed in the top ten ever since. When YoYoFactory asked him to develop a custom yo-yo, he named it “The Edge.” By coincidence, that’s what his father called his signature kite back in his pro flyer days.

Jake Maloney was in third grade when the Hawai‘i yo-yo champs visited his class in Michigan. “Team High Performance came to my school and changed my life,” he laughs. “‘Dare to Dream’ was the mantra, the message of the show. The THP guy called me up on stage for the sleeping contest—who could keep their yo-yo sleeping the longest. And I beat him! I mean, obviously he was trying to be nice. But I got up on stage in front of all my classmates, and I had the longest sleeper in school. It was so cool.”

The worldwide yo-yo community might be niche, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in verve. Fans display their enthusiasm during the finals, in which Evan placed sixth overall.

Jake went on to become a pro yo-yoer—among the best in the world from 2002 to 2006. He now runs the Downtown Plymouth Yo-Yo Club in Michigan and judges competitions. He was on duty at the 2014 National Yo-Yo Contest in Chico, California, when Evan surprised the crowd with a floor show. “He rolled around on the stage doing tricks! I’d never seen anything like that before.” After that performance, Jake says, he kept an eye on Evan. “Evan’s routine is always one of my favorites. He looks like he’s having fun. A lot of these kids are very serious; they stand in one spot and shred out really fast tricks. Evan moves around, he interacts with the audience, he smiles and his tricks are really good, too. He can perform and do really good tricks. That’s something you don’t see very often.”

Not long ago Evan spent a week coaching yo-yo newbies at Jake’s club in Michigan. Like most professional players, Evan acts as an ambassador for his sport. “We have a couple of kids who are young and very excited—especially around a guy who could be world champion someday,” says Jake. “They’re just like, ‘Gasp, Evan Nagao is here!’ But he’s super-cool about it, relaxed and willing to help everybody. Usually somebody that good at something is kind of pompous. He’s totally down to earth.”

Evan can’t hide his stoke; it’s written all over his face whenever he’s throwing tricks.“The yo-yo is an extension of my personality, my creative expression,” he says. “It’s very meditative for me. When I’m playing yo-yo I’m not thinking too much. It’s more muscle memory. My hands just move and create cool things. It’s time that I have to myself where I can process events in my life and things that are important to me.” Jake agrees. “There’s something relaxing about the yo-yo. It’s soothing. If I needed a break from studying while in school, I could pull out the yo-yo and do a couple tricks.” For Jake the benefits grew along with his commitment to the sport. “I’ve met some really good people, and now, wow, I’m in Iceland! I’ve been all over the world because of this spinning toy.”

Former champion Gentry Stein of California performs his routine during the semifinals.

Evan often uses his yo-yo to spark cultural exchange. In April 2017 he traveled with his family to a small village in Malawi, in southeastern Africa. “We were there with Nourish the Children, an organization that feeds hungry kids,” Evan says. “We gave away one hundred yo-yos. Even a small thing like a yo-yo is pretty thrilling for kids there.” The gift led to a spontaneous collaboration: Evan demonstrated a few tricks, surrounded by a sea of smiling faces. As he whirled his yo-yo, the children and their parents began clapping and singing in harmony. “It was a humbling experience. They were singing, I was playing my yo-yo and we were creating art together. It was one of the most powerful, profound experiences of my life.”

After months—maybe years—of practice, it’s showtime at the 2017 World Yo-Yo Contest. First up is the wild card division, which anyone can enter. Eleven-year-old Oliver Neuschuez walks on stage, a yo-yo coiled in his palm. “Player ready?” the female emcee asks. Oliver nods. The rapid-fire music starts and Oliver’s yo-yo springs to life: a whirring, spinning planet orbiting his nimble fingers. As a wild card competitor, he has just thirty seconds to convince the judges to advance him to the next level. For this half-minute of fame, his family traveled 2,386 miles from Strafford, New Hampshire, to Reykjavík. His impatient sister sits in the audience, eager to get back to sightseeing and collecting puffin souvenirs.

Whether Oliver qualifies for the next round is almost irrelevant. Sure, it would be a gigantic thrill, but for a lot of contestants, this weekend is more about communing with friends who share their obscure obsession—and rubbing elbows with their favorite YouTube celebrities.

Shu Takada, reigning champ of the 2A Division that incorporates twin yo-yos in two-handed looping tricks—reminiscent of traditional Māori poi balls.

Judges click counters each time the yo-yo touches the string—a subtlety that requires laser vision to see. Just how fast do yo-yos move? Dale once measured his spinning speed: in excess of 14,300 rpm—almost 100 miles per hour. In 2004, Yo-hans set the Guinness World Record of tricks per minute: fifty-one. That’s likely been surpassed, if not officially. Each time a player executes an especially tough trick, the audience hoots in unison. Mistakes are a given; perfection at this level of complexity is impossible. But the best players recover so quickly that casual observers don’t notice. If NASA needs pilots with split-second reaction capacities, they’d do well to recruit here.

Of the six competitive divisions, 1A is the most hotly contested, with the largest number of contenders. Competitors execute tight, artistic yo-yo routines at hyper-speed. “Making knots and getting out of them,” as Jake calls it. Division 2A incorporates twin yo-yos in two-handed looping tricks—reminiscent of traditional Māori poi balls. Other divisions feature spin-tops and off-string yo-yos, where players toss unencumbered discs into the air and lasso them with string.

Dale Oliver takes the stage during the Over Forty round. The 77-year-old is a yo-yo legend, the reason this contest exists. In 1992 he held the first major yo-yo tournament in modern times in Montreal. He also introduced freestyle to the yo-yoing world. Early yo-yo competitions involved rather static executions of set tricks, one after the other; today’s wildly artistic routines represent a dramatic departure. “It was my dream since I was 17 years old to see yo-yo go from a toy to a sport,” Dale says. “I’ve been more than gratified with what’s happened.”

This is Dale’s twenty-sixth world championship, and he’s still got game. He performs to The Beatles’ tune “When I’m Sixty-Four,” and the audience goes nuts. “The camaraderie amongst yo-yoers is really incredible,” he says afterward. “I haven’t seen that in any other competitive sport.” While yo-yoers might seem peculiar to outsiders, their tightknit, supportive club comes with lifetime membership.

The air is electric on the final day of the 2017 World Yo-Yo Contest. Vendors have vacated the auditorium to make room for fans. Kids who were rehearsing in hallways are now wired to their seats. The Icelandic hosts, Óskar and Páll, are ecstatic that they’ve pulled off a successful event.

Is yo-yoing a sport? “This is the question we’ve been asking
for all eternity,” says Nagao. “It’s a little too creative to be called
a pure sport, but it’s
a little too competitive to be called a hobby. Some people like to call it a spobby.” Here, Nagao performs his spobby beside Iceland’s iconic Gullfoss waterfall.

Wild cheers greet Shu Takada, the reigning 2A champion. Bespectacled and sincere, he looks like a Japanese Harry Potter; his pale face betrays no sign of his near-superhuman powers. When his soundtrack starts, he catapults into a backflip, landing with two bright orange discs in action. He whips them around his neck, in tandem and at different speeds and directions. Leaning into a deep backbend, with his yo-yos abuzz above him, he looks as if he’s boxing with bumblebees. Shion Araya, last year’s 1A winner, takes the stage to the smooth R&B beats of “Take No Defeat,” an auspiciously named tune by banvox. He performs a near-flawless routine that increases in speed and intensity to its finale, when he thrusts up his arm to signal number one.

Evan’s routine starts with three dramatic yo-yo punches, perfectly timed to the opening beats of “Look at Me Now,” by Chris Brown. He then launches into a blitz of tricks synced to superfast rapping by Busta Rhymes. The audience roars as he bangs out one astonishing move after the next, pausing between beats to grin conspiratorially at his fans. Then, in the middle of his most daring sequence—a series of ninja-like loops under both legs and behind his back—Evan misses a catch. His yo-yo hits the floor. The audience falls silent. Evan just flashes another big grin and keeps going.

In the end Shu captures first place in the 2A division, and Shion wins the 1A. A wild card contestant, Conner Seals, progresses all the way to the finals to finish eighteenth—a remarkable achievement. Evan places sixth. If he is disappointed, he shows no sign. Like his father, he takes setbacks in stride. Two months from now, at the 2017 US Nationals, he will take another crack at that extra-slippery sequence. This time he will nail it to become the US champion.

After the excitement in Reykjavík winds down, Evan and his dad hit Iceland’s scenic Ring Road. They pull up to Skógafoss, a two-hundred-foot-tall waterfall on the south coast. A double rainbow shimmers at its base. Rain-jacketed tourists advance toward the mighty cascade, braving icy gusts of mist to snap blissed-out selfies. Two yo-yoers linger at the trailhead, all but oblivious of the natural marvel—they’ve just spotted Evan. Within minutes all three are swapping tricks and strategies, yo-yos flying from their palms like birds taking wing. Evan continues down the trail to the waterfall. As he approaches, the rainbow grows bigger and brighter. “Wow! This is amazing!” He laughs in delight. Mist engulfs him and, suddenly, like an expertly executed yo-yo trick, the colorful arc closes around him, forming a complete circle. HH