Spin Control: Tricks on Display at the Maryland State Yo-yo Contest

At the Maryland State Yo-Yo Contest, competitors have the world on a string.Spin Control (Post Magazine, June 21, 2009) Video by Fan Bu/washingtonpost.com
By Rebecca Bengal
Sunday, June 21, 2009

Neatly spaced along the two-tone concrete-block walls of the Perryville Elementary School cafeteria-gym-auditorium is a glossy array of illustrated posters, each printed with a motivational charge: Take your best shot. Never, never quit. The expert in anything was once only a beginner. There is the stage, smallish and bordered by thick, mustard-yellow curtains, and before it, a more-than-necessary number of rows of folding chairs.

It's nearly midway through the 2009 Maryland State Yo-Yo Contest being held at the Cecil County school, and at any given time, most of the seats are vacant.

When the emcee calls Tyler Severance's name, and a skinny 17-year-old in a purple thrift-store T-shirt and cords walks onstage, the room becomes so quiet that you can hear, from somewhere, a lone yo-yo sliding along its string. Six or seven of Severance's crew, all of them yo-yoers, position themselves by the stage, and the whole room, it seems, waits to see what the former world champion has in store. What many in the audience don't know is that Severance, a high school senior, is on the verge of something none of them will realize, something greater than today's championship: a real shot at an actual career in yo-yoing. But first, the contest. He laughs nervously. "I'm signing autographs later," he says.

"No you aren't," a heckler/friend in the front row mutters.

"Just for your sister," Severance shoots back. Then he smiles, stretches and flexes in mock bodybuilder poses, cracks his knuckles and rolls his neck.

Each state contest works a little differently. The Maryland contest will announce the top placers in three categories of play -- sports ladder (a series of standard, predetermined tricks) and two freestyle divisions: 1A and X. In all freestyles, yo-yoers are judged on technical execution and performance -- much like ice skating or gymnastics. The highest-ranking Maryland resident in 1A will be declared state champion, but yo-yoers from outside the host state are eligible to compete, and many, including Severance, do, traveling from as close by as Delaware and Virginia, and as far away as Massachusetts and Michigan.

The instant his song, by Tokyo Police Club, cues up, Severance is ready with his first throw. (Throwing -- initiating the spin, or sleep -- is what sets up a trick in yo-yo.) He follows through with a rapid-fire sequence of complicated-looking work, his gaze intent even as his glasses edge down his nose. Suddenly he propels the yo-yo high into the air; three or four more spins in, he turns his whole body around, too, kicking up his foot for a bit of flair, which briefly distracts from the real action in the arms and wrists.

Freestyle yo-yoing is scored in points per successful trick, which the three judges count using handheld clickers, and Severance, who doesn't waste a throw or a second of his two minutes, is what's known in yo-yo as a "point whore." The effect is dazzling to the point of incoherence -- trying to distinguish each trick is like attempting to hear an auctioneer's every word. "I've been yo-yoing for years, and even I can't see every single one he's doing half the time," Jonathan Robinson, a close friend and frequent rival, told me earlier.

At the start of the 2009 contest season, Severance won 5A, the freestyle event where the string is attached to a counterweight, instead of the yo-yoer's finger, and took second in 1A at both the Virginia state championship and Pacific Northwest Regionals; at the Maryland competition, which has 36 contestants, he aims for a sweep: "I'm going to try to win both divisions," Severance had announced.

Cheers rise from the crowd, and Severance responds with a big, open-mouthed smile that is both gracious and cocky. He drops to one knee and whips the yo-yo around his other leg. The judges have their thumbs pressed on their clickers pretty much the entire time.


Tyler Severance has been yo-yoing every day for the past six or seven years. "Without yo-yoing," he says, "there would be nothing to take me away from the real world." At first, he obsessed over it. He'd practice five, six hours a day, making the training harder than any contest he could imagine. He'd freestyle, then film what he did, judge it himself and try to find points where he could insert more tricks. It paid off: In 2007, he won both the national and world championships in the 5A division, his strongest suit. Over the years, he's earned a couple thousand dollars in the form of free products; frequently, one of the companies that has sponsored him will comp his hotel or flight, which helps pay for the bigger contests among the 19 or so he competes in -- and tends to win -- each year.

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