Walking the Dog Slowly: Yo-Yo's Quest for Legitimacy

For the first time ever, the U.S. National Championship was an indoor, ticketed event. If yo-yo wants to reach a bigger audience, however, it will have to court more people—namely, women.

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Oct 23 2015, 1:48pm

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"You know what it is!" the MC bellowed in prize-fight tones. "Bring it back for Mr. Patrick Borgerding!"

The crowd cheered, and Patrick began. He started slow, his fingers spidering through string in intricate motions. As the music picked up, he increased his pace. He had only three minutes to wow the judges of the U.S. National Championships. In his hands, two yo-yos spun and blurred.

It was the kind of intricate handling that made members of the audience catch their breath and lean forward in their seats. "Oh!" someone in the crowd shouted after a clutch move. "Yeah!" someone else responded.

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In 2012, Patrick's performance earned him the title of U.S. Champion in 3A, one of five divisions of yo-yo. (Different yo-yo styles are like variations on poker; same game, different look.) Now the senior at UC Santa Barbara was trying to repeat his success—this time, on a stage of his own making.

"I'm tired of the lack of effort going into this event," Patrick said, speaking a few days before Nationals began. "Yo-yo can't grow if it's in parking lots, in malls, in parks."

The national championship used to take place in an outdoor park in Chico, California. Last year, the finals moved to a local theater. After that, Patrick and another yo-yo champ began strategizing about how to put their passion on the map.

"We went to Mexico and got drunk," said Tyler Severance. The two friends met in Mexico City at the Latin American championships and hammered out a proposal to move the event from its freewheeling park atmosphere to a more serious venue. They worked with Thad Winzenz and Bob Maloney, who head up the National Yo-Yo League, to elevate the show.

"The U.S. yo-yo community is the largest," Patrick said. "There's no reason it should be lackluster."

The pair has focused on making yo-yo a serious sporting event—from the basics, like selling tickets at a box office, to more advanced marketing strategies, like having vendors set up outside the auditorium. Nationals used to be free; now it costs $10 for general-admission tickets and a $90 entrance fee for competitors. About a third of the Redondo Beach Performing Art Center's 1,453 seats were filled.

But a quick scan of those seats—and the guys up on stage—revealed one of yo-yo's biggest problems: women. More to the point: the absence of women. Where were they?

Yo-yo started off as a dude-dominated sport, and it's only gotten worse. Introverted guys invite more introverted guys to try yo-yoing; women, not so much.

"It's intimidating," Tessa Piccillo said. "I'm intimidated."

She was the 2014 women's world champion.

Tessa, 18, is a big fish in the little pond of women's yo-yo; only two girls competed over the entire weekend. She stood on her own or with the other female competitor, Stephanie Haight, and watched with a keen eye the whirring yo-yos of those practicing around her.

"Sometimes I feel like I get a lot more attention because I'm a girl, and sometimes I feel like I'm left out because of it," she said. "It would be fun to have more girls to hang out with."

Tessa's dad showed her how to yo-yo six years ago, and from there she picked up tips from YouTube. She has not always been welcome in the community. In her own videos uploaded to YouTube, she would read snide comments about her gender: "Oh, you're good... for a girl."

She agrees that the dude-spiral effect—guys inviting more guys into the sport—limits how welcome women feel in the community. "Girls see it's a huge community of guys, so they feel like they can't really be a part of it," she said.

Worlds is the only contest where Tessa may compete in a women's division; in the United States, competitions are all unisex. But Tessa is torn on whether the U.S. Nationals should incorporate a women's division in the future.

"It's good because it lets people see girls can do this, too, and it's good exposure," she said. But it's not like there are physical limitations keeping competitors apart. "It shouldn't be split up between genders. Everyone can do this the same."

She remembers going to her first contest. "We all were so different, but we have this one thing that connected us," she said. "It's so cool to have everyone understand, and have the same passion as you do."

As Tyler Severance phrased it, "Get in where you fit in."

Tyler, Patrick's co-conspirator in reimagining Nationals, has won three national championships and one world title. He would have been defending his national title today, but he wanted to focus on the event itself.

He stood in the sunny atrium of the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, hardly believing that the crowd around him was here for Nationals. Yo-yo enthusiasts caught up with friends, sharing tricks, trying out new yo-yos. They flicked their wrists and the metallic orbs shot from their hands, narrowly missing other attendees and their own whirling yo-yos. Some had clipped yo-yos to their belts, hanging at the ready like battle gear. It's easy to imagine these guys chilling in their bedrooms for hours, practicing trick after trick while talking online with their friends and listening to music.

These men and boys all speak the same language of yo-yo. Photo by Melody Schreiber.

"You meet people from all walks of life—people who live for this," Tyler said. "It doesn't matter about economic status or creed or race." Up on the stage, all that matters is how good they are with a yo-yo.

"Yo-yos are like alcohol," he said. "They draw out who you really are."

Though Tyler, 24, doesn't join Patrick onstage anymore, yo-yo is still his whole life. He owns a company, Recess International, which co-sponsored the event and sold more than 100 yo-yos in the course of the day. He also speaks in schools and teaches students how to yo-yo—especially those in special education tracks. "Kids on the autism spectrum love it," he said. "Right now, I want to go over and teach those girls a few tricks." He gestured to two young girls tangling up the strings of their new toys.

Yo-yo, Tyler explained, is very freeing. There are no rules. And it's a good activity for those who aren't particularly athletic. "It gives people a way to excel," Tyler said, sounding like the school speaker he is. "You don't need to be strong; you don't need to be good-looking. You can just do it."

And Tyler wants everyone to have the opportunity to feel the way he does—to try yo-yo and see if it sparks the same fire in them. "But it needs to be organic growth. It needs to be a grassroots movement. I don't want it to be a fad, because fads fade away."

"Yo-yo is on a steady increase—not a boom by any measure, but steady growth," Patrick said. He just returned from traveling around Asia after Worlds in Tokyo. Everywhere he visited, he met other yo-yoers.

"We all speak the same language of yo-yo."

He wants to harness that spirit of collaboration to make Nationals a destination event for hard-core and casual fans alike. But he's also setting his sights on even bigger goals: "What does it take," he asked, "to get on TV?"

Paradoxically, his attempts to professionalize yo-yo might also hinder coverage. Before performances began, the MC announced that flash photography and filming full performances would be prohibited. Instead, a professional photographer would document the event.

"We're trying to make this official," the MC said to groans and mutters from the audience.

It's a long way from shaky smartphone footage in Chico, yet it limits attendees (and the media) from sharing photos and video—the kind of free promotion that many events depend upon to grow.

Up on stage, Patrick gained momentum for a big finish, quickly intertwining and then separating the two yo-yos. But then his strings tangled. He separated them and rolled the yo-yos back into each hand with a quick snap—a gesture he's done so many times that he doesn't seem to think about it anymore—but it was too late. He needed that valuable time to work up to the last trick. The music ended, and he nodded at the crowd with a sheepish smile.

As he said a few days before he took the stage, "Sometimes you make a mistake, you drop a string and you're just done. That's any sport. It's the nature of competition."

He wanted this win—but even more, he wanted this stage and this auditorium. Patrick Borgerding placed fourth in his division, but he got what he really came for. The crowd before him cheered as he left the stage.