University of Iowa sophomore Eric Tran-Ton is one of the world’s top yo-yoers.
That means he’s done a lot more than simply mastering tricks like “Walk the Dog” or “Around the World.” Tran-Ton’s routines often feature two yo-yos whirring through the air continuously for minutes at a time, creating patterns and shapes with quick flicks of his wrists.
On stage — yes, yo-yoing is something done on a stage, at times with hundreds and even thousands of spectators — his routines are choreographed to music.
At the 2013 World Yo-Yo contest in Orlando, Fla., the Chicago native earned top ten rankings in two categories — he got fourth and sixth place, competing against hundreds of yo-yo champions from around the globe.
It was his sixth time competing at the world championship. Tran-Ton, 19, has been yo-yoing since 2005, when he said everyone in his fifth grade class seemed to be into it.
When his classmates eventually lost interest, however, he kept on yo-yoing, watching YouTube videos and teaching himself to advance his skills.
“You have complete control creatively over what you do,” he said. “Every trick I do I’ve made up. You can express yourself very freely without worrying about how it looks.”
At one point he estimated he was practicing 10-15 hours a week, though his pace has slowed considerably since starting college, where he’s studying psychology and computer science.
“There are people who have made this into a profession. This is more of a side thing for me,” he said. “If it becomes a job it loses all of the fun.”
It may not be a job, but it has paid off — he’s traveled internationally to yo-yo competitions and shows, and he is sponsored by yo-yo company Werrd, which worked with him to design the custom yo-yo he uses onstage.
“I just love being on the stage, because if you do something cool and the crowd cheers for you, it’s arguably the coolest feeling on the planet,” he said. “Competing is a labor of love.”
He’s performed and competed in the Czech Republic, Vietnam — a special treat because it is where his family is from — and Japan, where a crowd of 8,000 filled a theater to watch a national competition.
“The crowds over there can get pretty big,” he said. “It’s much more of a public show, much more like a street culture.”
The yo-yo community in the United States is more concentrated on the West Coast than the Midwest, he said. Iowa boasts only a handful of enthusiasts scattered around the state.
One of those is 11-year-old Nathan Gall. A fifth-grader at Horn Elementary in Iowa City, he’s learned a lot from Tran-Ton. The two practice together with the UI Juggling Club, many Saturdays throughout the school year.
Like his mentor, Gall bought his first yo-yo along with a slew of his classmates — at one point there were so many yo-yo enthusiasts school administrators blocked off a section of the playground for yo-yo tricks. Also like Tran-Ton, Gall has stuck with the game as most of his friends have moved on.
“I feel it’s kind of a way to channel energy,” Gall said. “Also, your friends end up gawking at you, and that’s cool.”
What advice does the older yo-yoer have for Gall and other aspiring yo-yo champions?
“I only started doing well in the past two years. If you put the time into it, the rewards will come,” he said. “Without yo-yoing, I definitely wouldn’t be able to experience a lot of the things I have.”
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