Pacific NW Cover Story
The Yo-Yo Kid
Say the yo-yo had never been invented, or hadn't leapfrogged from the Philippines to America, or Pedro Flores hadn't crafted a "slip string" to make...
For more information on yo-yoing, see www.yoyoing.com. To contact the Northwest yo-yo club Strung Out, e-mail email@example.com.
Say the yo-yo had never been invented, or hadn't leapfrogged from the Philippines to America, or Pedro Flores hadn't crafted a "slip string" to make the wooden doughnut spin in its sleep so you could do tricks. Or say the Jazz Age craze never turned into a Depression-era comfort, never caught on with the postwar baby boomers and didn't survive the video-game era into an age of customized technical yo-yos fabricated with ceramic ball-bearings and weighted rims.
Then Sterling Quinn would be a really good skateboarder. Or scooterer. Or maybe even a top-notch Irish dancer. After all, it was while Irish dancing at the Seattle Center 2 ½ years ago that Sterling, then 11, was inspired by a grunge of guys doing yo-yo tricks you wouldn't believe. An around-the-world where the string wrapped around the yo-yoer's neck and he spun the reverse way to corkscrew out. Yo-yos freed from their strings, tossed high, captured tightrope-style in mid-air. Sterling also saw Rock-the-Babies where the spinning orb skittered through spider webs of string, but he didn't know enough about yo-yoing to appreciate the trick's difficulty.
Between Irish jigs, Sterling wandered over to center stage to gawk at the first annual Pacific Northwest Yo-Yo Championships. He'd been fooling around with a green butterfly Freehand 2 yo-yo for a couple months, so he entered the beginner's competition. He took third.
A year later, Sterling won the regional competition's open division, was a finalist at worlds and signed on with Extreme Spin, a company that gives him some free yo-yos. Earlier this year, Sterling earned the state title for his off-string yo-yo routine (set to his own mix of Mexican rock band Kinky and American ska band Reel Big Fish) as well as for his performance in the more traditional one-handed stringed yo-yo competition.
"Two or three years ago, this scrawny little kid shows up and can't do crap with the yo-yo," says Jason Mendoza, an early member of the Northwest yo-yo club Strung Out. "The thing about Seattle is we're very helpful. If we know it, we'll teach it to you. Every time he came back, he'd know everything we taught him the previous session and would have made it his own. It kept building until we said, 'This kid is getting really good. He's going to beat all of us.' And the next contest, he did."
For more information on yo-yoing, see www.yoyoing.com. To contact the Northwest yo-yo club Strung Out, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Yo-yoing requires eye-hand coordination, deep concentration and a keen spatial awareness that allows yo-yoers to translate tricks they see and imagine into maneuvers they can do.
To watch Sterling is to marvel. In his freestyle off-string routine, the spinning orb rolls around his leg, whips behind his back, zings across his chest, pops through his legs and slides down his shoulder before he launches an original hat trick. . He also sprinkles the routine with cat's-cradle-like maneuvers that have so many convoluted loops even he admits it's hard to keep the string unkinked.
"Flamboyant," says Mendoza when describing Sterling's style. "Right attitude — right personality," declares Nathan Crissey, contest director for the Pacific Northwest Yo-Yo Championships. Most of all, as with any sport or art, yo-yoing requires practice, practice, practice. As a home-schooled pre-teen who is also pre-job and pre-dating, Sterling also has a lot of time.
"Actually," Mendoza says, "I don't sense any more natural talent in Sterling than in anybody else. It's just he loves it. He has that little-kid, totally unbridled joy for yo-yoing, and it shows. On stage, he's high energy, always smiling and running around and playing up to the crowd. Sometimes we talk about how one day he'll hit puberty and he'll start growing funny and get interested in other things and he might lose it. But at least for now, yo-yoing is his passion."
STERLING QUINN yo-yos up to four hours a day, six hours daily before competitions, rubbing raw grooves in his slender fingers. Once, he focused so hard on executing a trick he didn't realize he was injured until noticing the yo-yo string soaked red with his own blood.
Now 13, Sterling stands 4 feet 10 inches tall, weighs 90 pounds, and appears on stage as a blur of elbow and lean limb. He has braces, an impish smile and large brown eyes that widen in wonder and delight after executing a hard trick like bumping an off-string yo-yo with his knee, catching it in his black baseball cap and flipping the toy back onto its string.
Sterling looks young for his age. His sweet, elfin charm may earn a couple extra crowd-appeal points during competition, not to mention a few extra bucks from passers-by when he busks at local festivals.
Toeing the edge of adolescence in size 6 ½ Vans, Sterling has a hint of fuzz on his upper lip, but his voice has yet to deepen. He's not in any hurry to grow up. The older guys in Strung Out talk about girlfriends and jobs and having to pay rent; Sterling worries those things will eventually impinge on his yo-yoing. He fears, most of all, that he'll someday get bored with yo-yoing and abandon the beloved snarls of string that snooze under his bed. Already, his neighbor friend Kyle, who is a year older and in high school, has so much homework he can skateboard and scooter only on the weekends, and even then, not much. Another friend, also a year older, is distracted by "social things," Sterling says. "He'd be really amazing, one of the best yo-yoers in the world if he yo-yoed more. I don't know how he'll keep up if he doesn't yo-yo every day."
Romance, college, adult life . . . "It'll just happen. I can't really do anything about it," Sterling says. "So." For a rare moment, he stops yo-yoing and looks forlorn and sad. Then he launches his favorite Mini MoTu Yo-YoJam yo-yo into a new round of tricks, ball bearings whizzing, order restored.
Sterling has always been the kind of kid who throws himself into whatever it is full force, says his mother, Mary Ann Quinn. As a baby, living aboard a 156-foot three-masted schooner captained by his father, Dan Quinn, Sterling glommed onto tools, clutching in his chubby fist his constant companion: a Phillips-head screwdriver (its tip taped blunt). At 6, he delved into historical fiction, dressing in character as various Civil War soldiers, complete with musket, canteen and appropriate insignia, even on trips to the market. Later came Irish dancing, skateboarding, scootering and BMX biking. Now he doesn't want to do any sports that would risk injury to his hands.
That Sterling follows his passions is no accident. Mary Ann and Dan decided to home school their son expressly so he'd retain a passion for learning. "In school, they teach you a lot of stuff that doesn't appeal to the passion of young boys," Mary Ann says. "Our philosophy is if there's something he really likes to do, research it, let him read whatever he can about it, get him involved in it."
At one time, this meant trekking to Civil War re-enactments with her young son. Now, Mary Ann jokingly refers to herself as "Yo-Yo Ma," and accompanies Sterling to yo-yo club, yo-yo competitions in California and Florida (he has to pay his own travel expenses, including hotel and gas) and yo-yo demonstrations, where he shows off tricks and then sells yo-yos to kids at schools and libraries for a slight profit. He earns the bulk of his travel money from busking; last year at Northwest Folklife, passers-by tossed more than $800 into his baseball cap.
In theory, Sterling is supposed to finish math exercises and essay writing and some reading in "Swiss Family Robinson" before yo-yoing. In practice, he often yo-yos during breaks and while doing school work. Even then, his lessons don't take long. The good part about home school? "I don't have to keep doing work," Sterling says, "if I already understand something."
That leaves more time for yo-yoing in the family's whimsical Rainier Beach cabin — a cozy place of books, slanted floors and dozens of Sterling's new-fangled old-fashioned toys.
If not for Sterling's Internet yo-yo videos, you might mistake his childhood as existing in another era, when kids filled long afternoons with the rhythmic whir of string.
ALONG WITH DOLLS and balls, yo-yos are believed to be among the world's original toys.
Many historians say they were invented in China; others point to a piece of 2,500-year-old Greek pottery that shows a young man playing with a yo-yo. By the late 1700s, British and French royalty favored the toy, and Napoleon reportedly issued yo-yos to troops to relieve stress.
Yo-yos, often made of wood, were especially popular in the Philippines where there's a strong wood-carving tradition. Island folklore says they were used for hunting and as weapons of war, though archaeologists have yet to unearth physical proof.
It's universally agreed, however, that for centuries all yo-yo strings were tied to the axle. That limited play to down, up, down — no spinning tricks.
Until Pedro Flores came along. Flores was a Filipino immigrant born in the late 1800s who used the yo-yo to achieve the American Dream. It's a tale chronicled by independent filmmaker Cynthia Liu in an upcoming documentary, "World on a String."
Flores is credited with introducing the slip string, the most important phenomenon to influence yo-yos since gravity. Slip strings enable yo-yos to spin independently — expanding exponentially the range of elaborate tricks.
Flores established America's first yo-yo company in Santa Barbara, Calif., later opening a branch office on Seattle's Main Street. He popularized the toy by hiring a cadre of Filipino-American "Yo-Yo Men" to demonstrate tricks in front of candy stores across the country. Basic models sold for a nickel, the fancy version, 25 cents.
The one-time cannery and plantation worker built a large company and healthy stock portfolio, dressed in exquisitely tailored suits and owned a fleet of flashy cars, even though he never learned to drive, Liu says. All this before the Civil Rights era, when the Philippines still had a colonial relationship with the U.S. and Filipinos were treated as "little brown brothers," subject to discrimination in business, citizenship, marriage, housing, schools and jobs.
Yo-yo aficionados consider Flores, not the better-known Donald Duncan, to be the grandfather of modern yo-yos. Flores sold his company to Duncan during the Great Depression, along with the trademark name "yo-yo," said to be Tagalog slang meaning "come-come." Later, Flores' good friend and fellow Filipino-American yo-yo man, Joe Radovan, started his own company, Royal Tops. Duncan sued Royal Tops and other yo-yo makers over exclusive use of the term "yo-yo."
By proving the toy's historical link to the Philippines, Liu says, Royal Tops eventually won the lawsuit. This meant "yo-yo" was a universal term available to everyone. Duncan's company went bankrupt and was bought by Flambeau Inc., a plastics company that still manufactures Duncan yo-yos.
Were he alive today, Pedro Flores might marvel over technical yo-yos, the top-of-the-line crafted by boutique fabricators using CAD programs, aircraft-grade alloys, ceramic ball bearings, counterweights, silicone gaskets. You can buy a decent competition-level yo-yo for $25, or you can spend $400 on a Duncan Freehand MG, a forged magnesium beauty known for its balance.
The esteemed suit-and-tie Yo-Yo Men would certainly tip their hats to yo-yo rock stars such as Shinji Saito of Japan, who sports anime hair and dare-devil tricks using his tongue and ears. Japan, Singapore and Brazil are the world's yo-yo hot spots; in the U.S., yo-yo champs hail from California, New England and Pennsylvania, with the Pacific Northwest rising fast.
Old days, the Yo-Yo Men demonstrated walk-the-dog and rock-the-baby and carried snippets of sandpaper in their pockets to widen the groove between the wood halves. Liu laughs. "The only thing that hasn't really changed in 80 years," she says, "is the string."
JASON MENDOZA surveys his collection of 400 yo-yos (down from its peak at 800), and sees his life.
There was his first yo-yo in high school, a gorgeous scarlet Proyo Profire that went with him everywhere like a little red wagon. "It was my awkward-duck stage, y'know, 15, 16, when you spent a lot of time bored and alone but you always had your yo-yo," Mendoza says. "To this day, I'm glad I have a talent and skill to show for that time instead of hanging out at the mall or watching TV." When he graduated from Nathan Hale High, he gave it to a favorite band teacher.
Next, a series of inexpensive Duncan Freehand Originals modified with chameleon paint in sparkle colors, drilled for larger bolts and installed with experimental grips during a period of listening to punk music and having more fun with friends than he should've. It was the end of high school, early millennium, a couple years after the big yo-yo resurgence in '98. Tricks evolved faster between 2001 and 2003, Mendoza says, than in the rest of yo-yo history combined. The Yo-Yo Revolution. That's when he started hanging out with Strung Out.
Next, Night Moves, a YoYoJam signature yo-yo that he spun during smoke breaks while studying culinary arts at North Seattle Community College. "Amazing stress reliever."
Then, Mendoza plowed through a dozen basic-black X-Con yo-yos while pulling double shifts running the pizza station and grill at the busiest café on Microsoft's Redmond campus. Barely time for a girlfriend or anything else. Mendoza rewarded himself with an $80 Bare Bone, a boutique aluminum butterfly yo-yo, and paid $50 to have it powder-coated in Ectoplasm Green.
Bare Bone was among the yo-yos Mendoza used last July 3 at the Columbia Basin competition in Pasco where Sterling Quinn won the big trophy. Mendoza took second.
"It wasn't that I was miserable," Mendoza says. "I was one of the old boys. We'd carried the yo-yo scene in this city for years. It was like all this pressure was gone. Suddenly, when I thought of doing something, yo-yoing just wasn't the first thing in my mind anymore. It was strange. It was weird. It was time to pass the string to the next generation."
Paula Bock is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Email: email@example.com. Ken Lambert is a Seattle Times staff photographer.