There and Back Again 

Yo-Yos move from toy to sport

Climbing the "trick ladder" at the Idaho State Yo-Yo Competition, competitors look increasingly like they're caught in a web of yo-yo string.

They catch it between their fingers and bounce the yo-yo back and forth on the string. The yo-yo rolls up and down and over and, somehow, it still zips back into the hand of the thrower after defying every known law of physics.

Competitors as young as 10 were throwing a yo-yo timed to a hip-hop beat, pumping up the passing crowd from the Emmett Cherry Festival and completing complex and sometimes precarious tricks with a simple spinning disc on a string.

The competition took place June 14 at Emmett City Park, but it was years in the making. It was born from the efforts of 18-year-old Michael Montgomery, a recent graduate of Emmett High School.

This was only the second year for the Idaho State Yo-Yo Competition, although the first was in 2005. A lack of funds forced a two-year hiatus, but 16 sponsors, including Duncan Yo-Yos and Key Bank, made the return of the competition possible.

The event was divided in two categories: the freestyle and the trick ladder. Freestyle competitors choreograph a two-minute routine to music. Some intricately plan their routines down to the millisecond, while others show up with their music and just wing it.

Montgomery prefers to pick a song a few weeks before the competition, choose 10 tricks of high difficulty and place them in the song, then fill in the rest of his routine on the spot.

Judges watch for good "string hits" and rate each trick, adding between one and five points based on difficulty. They deduct one to five points for "string misses." Riskier routines score much higher, buy also get higher deductions if mistakes are made.

If the yo-yoer can interpret the music in a clever way, get the crowd going and use the whole stage space to perform, the score will be higher. However, the rules are very clear that inappropriate behavior and dancing will not be tolerated. No Michael Jackson dance moves in front of the kids.

"The skills that they use to do that is like juggling and a merry-go-round all in one," said competition judge John Bozung, 58. "That kind of coordination is a gift from God."

Bozung came from Washington to judge the Idaho State Yo-Yo Competition and is the director for the trick ladder­—also known as the sport ladder—for nationals. He has won multiple world and national titles in the sport ladder himself.

The sport ladder event is very different from the freestyle. It requires yo-yoers to complete a series of tricks of escalating difficulty without making mistakes. Competitors "climb the ladder" as far as they can, and are allowed to miss one trick. Once a competitor misses the second trick, he or she is out.

The competitor who gets the farthest on the regulation list of 25 tricks wins. This year, the winner in the trick ladder was Justin Deal from Oldtown, in northern Idaho. According to Montgomery, Deal made it up to trick 22—the kamikaze.

Bozung, who began yo-yoing to relieve stress, specializes in the trick ladder because it's slower and more precise. Yo-yoers can pause and catch their breath between tricks and take the time they need to execute each trick to perfection.

The ladder starts with the "sleeper"—letting the yo-yo spin for at least five seconds before recalling it to the hand. Then competitors "rock the baby," "split the atom," go "double or nothing" and do a "gyroscopic flop." On one of the high-level tricks, the "suicide bomb," the string is used as a veritable jump rope, swinging around the air before catching the still-spinning yo-yo three times. For each trick, the yo-yo must fly back to the thrower's hand or it's a miss.

The freestyle competition is much more aerobic. In larger competitions, freestyle divisions expand to include a double-A event, with two yo-yos, off-string yo-yoing, and yo-yoing with counterweights. In order to compete at a national level, athletes must practice a grueling four to five hours a day, Bozung said.

"Their fingers get torn up from the strings. In double-A, the string wraps around their forearms and their arms get shredded," he said. "A three-minute routine can be like going into a boxing ring."

As whimsical as yo-yoing may seem, the equipment can be very sophisticated and, consequently, very expensive. A top-of-the-line yo-yo can cost up to $150. An average competition-grade yo-yo is between $40 and $50. Some yo-yos have ball-bearings and are made of high-tech blended metals and wound with strings that have a special coating.

Bozung was able to win the national sport ladder with a $15 yo-yo. The freestyle division is where an expensive yo-yo will give competitors an edge.

"You really have to use the best you've got or go home," Montgomery said.

He uses a $45 yo-yo with a transplanted ball-bearing on it so it spins faster and longer. He spent another $60 customizing his yo-yo and at least an hour tuning it. The money is a modest price compared to some yo-yos, and all competitors know that in competition several yo-yos are needed. Bozung said that many kids have eight to ten $100-yo-yos in their bags.

In the 2005 Idaho State Yo-Yo Competition, 20 people competed in three events over four-and-a-half hours. This year's competition was restricted to three hours because of the Emmett Cherry Festival's event schedule. Turnout was significantly lower—only 10 competitors—but Montgomery was enthusiastic about the show.

"In 2005 I didn't really know what I was doing. I just tried to copy from my favorite contests," Montgomery said. "This time, I knew what had worked in 2005, and I planned everything two months before the competition took place."

He said that in spite of the low turnout, the flow and organization of the contest worked better this year.

Montgomery is eager to generate interest for future competitions by helping local yo-yo clubs get started. He hopes that by promoting city clubs and city competitions interest in the state competition will grow and the next competition will host even more hand-held acrobatics.

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