Dave Schulte tells his yo yo students that if they aren't getting head injuries, they're not trying hard enough.
The 39-year-old Mr. Schulte is a professional yo-yoist who makes $50,000 a year giving lessons and performing. He's got the world on a string -- and a right index finger that's numb from years of yo-yoing.
The sport has been transformed by metal and industrial-plastic yo-yos with ball bearings that spin so fast the tricks possible today would have been unthinkable a few years back. The string spider webs of the "Corn Pops Explosion," the freehand whirls of the "Yosemite Escape" or the tightly wound spins of the "Cold Metal" are all made possible because of advances in yo-yo technology.
The world record for "sleeping," when the yo-yo is at the bottom of the string but spinning rapidly, has gone from just over seven minutes in 1998 to 16 minutes and 17 seconds.
Trouble is, a fast yo-yo can be a dangerous yo-yo. Hardcore yo-yoists now upload images of their battle wounds online: chipped teeth, calloused hands, bandaged brows. Mr. Schulte's angiogram of his right hand showing the ruined veins in his index finger is circulated widely via email among yo-yoists.
At last year's World Yo-Yo Competition, one competitor was carted off on a stretcher. The injured yo-yoist, from Singapore, dislocated his knee during a freestyle competition, which often involves intense full-body choreography.
Simple yo-yos have been around for centuries, but the modern ones have their roots in the 1920s, when Filipino-American Pedro Flores opened a yo-yo shop in Santa Barbara, Calif. American marketer Donald Duncan then bought the company and began pushing manufactured versions nationwide. Most were made of wood or plastic. The inexpensive toys were a hit during the Great Depression.
Throughout the 1950s, Duncan sent traveling yo-yoists across the country to peddle their wares and demonstrate tricks at shopping centers and schoolyards. But sales slipped, and the company filed for bankruptcy-court protection in 1965. Three years later, Flambeau Inc. in Baraboo, Wis., bought Duncan and now runs the company. To celebrate Duncan's 80th anniversary, the company is resurrecting the yo-yo demonstrations of yore, enlisting 66 yo-yo professionals to conduct more than 130 demonstrations this summer. The yo-yoists are also featured on newly released trading cards.
The current economic downturn has been good for Duncan. The company, which sells more than two-thirds of the yo-yos in the U.S., says sales are up 23% from a year ago. Most of their "bread and butter" yo-yos retail for less than $20, says Mike Burke, spokesman for Duncan.
New Duncan yo-yo models, such as the free-hand Hayabusa or the $499 Freehand Mg made of 99% magnesium, are created by Duncan's yo-yoists. The stringers regularly submit drawings and prototypes of their models.The company will unroll a new line of high-end yo-yos this summer. They feature wider axles to allow for wiggle room for complex tricks, precision ball-bearings for smooth glides and perfectly weighted casings for an even touch.
Still, Duncan doesn't cut it for some extreme yo-yo practitioners. They build their own.
Brian Roberts, better known in the yo-yo world as "Doctor Popular," is holding on to 100 Bolt yo-yos that he custom designed out of a high-grade plastic called Celcon that's impossible to shatter. Mr. Roberts, of San Francisco, also sports a flaming yo-yo tattoo on his left arm. His right arm is so much larger than his left, because of yo-yoing he says, that the sleeves of some of his T-shirts are too tight.
Mr. Roberts once sold a "Silver Bullet 2" yo-yo to a man who had recently been robbed at gunpoint while working at a gas station in Minnesota. The Bullet is known for its sharp edges, high-end metal body and fast spin. "His boss wouldn't let him get a gun," he says. "I think he thought he was a ninja."
Pat Cuartero, 28, of New York, left a six-figure gig as a technology programmer at Merrill Lynch in 2006 to pursue yo-yoing full time. Before he got out of Wall Street, Mr. Cuartero regularly toted his favorite yo-yos in his suit pockets and in briefcases. He regularly spun two-handed while on conference calls.
Now, he runs a company called YoYoNation that sells yo-yos, organizes competitions and plays host to online discussion forums. Mr. Cuartero, who specializes in two-handed play, boasts palms white with calluses and middle fingers with permanent string indentations. He says that though his wrists ache sometimes, "I've never been happier."
Some yo-yoists still cling to the slower and safer models. Valerie Oliver of Fort Worth, Texas, uses a classic fixed-axle Technic yo-yo when she performs at schools. She started with a Duncan Imperial made of plastic in 1962 when she was 6 years old. Her yo-yo group, the Lone Star Spinners, has met once a month for more than a decade.
Newer models used by the pros don't actually return to the hand when thrown down. That allows for longer string play. "I want my yo-yo to come back when I jerk it," Ms. Oliver says.
An out-of-control yo-yo can cause big trouble. Paul Yath of Lakewood, Calif., shattered his apartment window a couple of winters ago. The cotton string "just snapped" while he was performing a difficult maneuver and shot the metal yo-yo like a bullet across the room. Another time, the four-time national champion took a bloody cut above his brow to the emergency room. He didn't need stitches.
These days, Mr. Yath carries two sets of backup yo-yos when he goes onstage, he says. "You never know when you might hit an unexpected snag," he says.
Although Mr. Schulte, of Brooklyn Park, Minn., says he's accustomed to the numbness in his index finger, he was recently rudely reminded that his face is far from numb. While he was performing a stunt called "the trapeze" before a group of seniors at a nursing home, a snagged string backfired. The metal, sharp-edged yo-yo cut his right cheek. That drew some blood, but in this business, too, the show must go on. "You just keep going," he says.
from WSJ, 7-17-09