Although supremely frustrating to beginners, the learning process is more educational than it seems, according to Cuartero. “It’s like putting together a puzzle, “ he says. “You learn these tricks step-by-step, and it really tests your patience. But when you are finally able to land that trick for the first time, it’s like, ‘Yes!’ I know some people who were really introverted and shy. After winning [a few] contests and learning a bunch of tricks, they completely change. You can see they’re standing up straighter. [They have] more motivation and confidence to speak with people. It’s just an awesome experience.”
The International Yo-Yo Open & New York State Yo-Yo Contest commences under the stifling Manhattan sun, with an onstage performance by the sponsored team, YoYoJam, in which all members are doing various yo-yo tricks simultaneously. The spiky-haired Cuartero, dressed in an oversize T-shirt and jeans, mans the mike for all the announcements. Although friendly and charismatic, he looks suspiciously like he may be hungover from the night before. Two spectators in the crowd behind me listen to his opening speech.
“That looks like Lloyd from Entourage,” says one. “Hey, Lloyd!”
His friend checks out the professional yo-yoers milling about backstage. “These guys are such hipsters.”
Indeed, a hipness factor does extend to the yo-yo dudes. Many of them sport the now-fashionable slept-on haircut. Several have extra yo-yos clipped to their belts and walk around with a gunslinger swagger. Some of the Japanese competitors sport supercool black clothing, exaggerated Dracula-shirt collars, silver designer sneakers, or a single black glove. And still others strut their stuff in team shirts, including the Duncan and YoYoJam teams.
A bottle of talcum powder is provided backstage to dry nervous yo-yo hands. People stand by themselves, listening to music through earbuds, going through their tricks one last time.
The main crowd stays constant at around 400 or so, but thousands more pass by the stage and watch for a while. Tourists with children, bearded guys puffing on cigars, people in wheelchairs -- everybody stops to check out the yo-yo action.
During the cavalcade of one guy after another doing tricks, I spot a girl competing in the tournament. After she finishes, I catch her backstage for the inevitable breathless post-event sports interview. Kahlie Evans is 21 years old; from Adelaide, Australia; and has been yo-yoing for five and a half years. The yo-yo scene back home is small, she says: “The number of judges is basically the scene in Australia.”
It’s a bit odd to be a woman in the sport, but, she shrugs cheerfully, “It’s always good to be the minority of the minority!” She works packing boxes in a factory and paid her own travel to come to New York. Although she places 20th, she’s clearly having a great time.
Another yo-yoer, Ondrej Šedivý, came all the way from the Czech Republic. He’s 25 and has been yo-yoing for eight years. The scene in Prague started with just four guys, he says, and has now grown to more than 200. He organizes yo-yo contests back home, has toured all over Europe with the Duncan team, and is now in college, studying medicine. He placed 44th yesterday, so he’s not competing today.