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A city with a lot of pull

In the yo-yo capital of Chico, Calif., competitors in the U.S. National Contest throw physics — and their rivals — for a loop. 'Walk the Dog'? That's so old-school.

October 11, 2010|By Steve Chawkins, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Chico, Calif. — As Wimbledon is to tennis, so is Chico to yo-yo.

The Northern California college town is a magnet for the sport's elite. At this time each year, they arrive with new moves, new tricks, new attitude. They drop in at Bird in Hand, the downtown toy store that houses the National Yo-Yo Museum. In the alley outside, they practice, practice. Green neon strings shoot out everywhere as boys in black T-shirts and jeans greet old friends with a quick hug, a query about their newest sponsors, a comment about their latest videos.

Then practice is over and they play for keeps, throwing physics and geometry for a loop on a pillar-flanked bandstand in a crowded town square as they compete in the U.S. National Yo-Yo Contest.

"Such joy! Such excitement! Such yo-yo-energy," Dr. Tom Kuhn, 67, a San Francisco dentist and yo-yo pioneer, said as he watched this year's event Oct. 2. The players — mostly young men in their teens and 20s — performed one by one, sweating to thumping rock and hip-hop under a blazing sun.

In 1979, Kuhn built the world's biggest yo-yo, a 256-pound wooden No Jive 3-in-1 that resides in the Chico museum. On its first outing, it was dropped from a 150-foot crane, broke loose from its thick nautical rope and plunged into San Francisco Bay. Kuhn later developed the ball-bearing system at the heart of the modern yo-yo — a mechanism that allowed for unprecedented spin times and helped catapult the yo-yo from cheap toy to high-tech wonder.

"They're so universal," Kuhn said, licking a watermelon ice. "Everyone loves a yo-yo."

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Chico, at the northern end of the Sacramento Valley, is surrounded by almond orchards. It has shaded streets and fine old homes, a downtown dotted with art galleries and one of the largest city parks in the U.S.

In the heart of the city, Cal State Chico provides a cultural buzz — but yo-yo gives the town a spin all its own.

At Bird in Hand, owner Bob Malowney prominently displays photos of local champs: Six members of the Chico Yo-Yo Club, he proudly points out, won regional tournaments to qualify for this year's nationals. Former national champion Augie Fash couldn't make it because he was in China — on a yo-yo tour.

Given to Hawaiian shirts and enthusiastic pronouncements, Malowney , 61, is a kind of yo-yo evangelist.

"I want to see every 10-year-old who has potential do as well as they possibly can," he said. "Yo-yo builds hand-eye coordination, quickness of thinking, self-discipline and the self-respect that comes from getting tricks. We're giving them the skills they need to be better adults."

Looking for a place that had "the charm of Southern California in the 1950s," the San Diego native came to Chico in 1988 — and soon held his first yo-yo contest, with all of five competitors.

Last weekend, more than 80 players registered in the top tiers of the free competition, while dozens vied at lower levels. The peak crowd was estimated at 2,000. One of the judges, Hironori Mii, flew in from Japan. Mii, who runs a Japanese yo-yo company, studied business at Chico State because of the city's yo-yo reputation.

The day of the championship, 22 players clambered off a charter bus from Portland, Ore., wearing the bright yellow T-shirts of an after-school program called Yo-Yo University.

"I used to do Rubik's Cube over and over, but there's only a set number of things you can do with that," said Ibrahim Rahman, a 17-year-old high school student. "Yo-yo is infinite."

Over eight hours, the possibilities were strung out onstage. Some players were the picture of frozen focus, barely moving their bodies as their hands moved at warp speed, executing loops and whirls, whips and hooks, slacks and suicides. The more animated competitors hopped over their strings, knelt down, leaped up, passed their yo-yos between their legs, shot them toward the sky. Though some barely connected with the crowd, others were unabashed entertainers, beckoning as urgently as traffic cops to trigger bursts of applause.

Because advancing technology lets yo-yos spin for minutes rather than seconds, tricks tend to be a lot more complicated than old standbys like "Walk the Dog."

In some competitions, players use two yo-yos at once. Or a yo-yo balanced on a string but unattached to it. Players share tricks on the Internet and give them names that are unmistakably contemporary: Kwijibo, Gerbil, Mach5, Gyroscopic Flop.

"Chico always brings the big talent out," said Brett Grimes, a Cleveland shoe salesman who runs a website called highspeedyoyo.com. "They're fast. Sometimes you watch and don't even comprehend what just happened. It's not like a 300 game in bowling. It's constantly evolving."

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