Name: Gentry Stein
Hometown: Chico, California
Special Skill: Yo-yo
When Gentry Stein has downtime, you can find him playing basketball, hiking, going to the gym, or maybe drawing—not unlike most 20-year-olds. But unlike most 20-year-olds, the rest of his days are spent training and competing for yo-yo competitions. We met up with Stein in San Francisco and asked him to show us some of his best moves and to teach us a trick. We also chatted with him about misconceptions of the sport, being named best thrower in the world, and spreading the power of the yo-yo.
How did you first get into yo-yoing?
When I was eight, I found a store in my hometown called Bird in Hand, which also houses the National Yo-Yo Museum, and discovered that they have yo-yo lessons every Saturday—so I just started going. I was playing sports and also doing a lot of art at the time, and I found that yo-yoing was a way for me to express both of those passions in one medium. I took lessons for years, and now I actually run them at the National Yo-Yo Museum!
When did you first start competing?
My first competition was in 2009. I was in middle school, and I didn't do very well at that competition at all which really bummed me out, so I practiced my butt off. I worked really hard for my second competition, which I flew to Seattle for and won second place. That's where everything started.
"In one year I went from not making finals to getting first in the world." —Gentry Stein
You recently competed in the California State Yo-Yo Championship where you came in first place, right?
Yes! I've competed in a lot of different contests. Kind of a funny story, actually: In 2013, I was practicing to win the World Contest but I didn't make the cut for finals. So that year I trained really hard and went on to win Nationals that year, and then World's in 2014! So In one year I went from not making finals to getting first in the world, which is pretty cool.
What's your favorite yo-yo?
The one I was used to win the U.S. Nationals, actually—a plastic yo-yo I launched that costs $16. The yo-yos people typically use now are really expensive, around $80, so I used one that was only $16 to show kids that you don't need an expensive yo-yo to be good at yo-yos or win competitions.
"I've been to eleven different countries to bring yo-yos to people who normally wouldn't ever see yo-yos, or even know what a yo-yo is." —Gentry Stein
I made the yo-yo with Yo-Yo Factory, the top-level modern yo-yo company right now. One thing that makes Yo-Yo Factory special is that the whole company is owned and run by yo-yo players. One thing that we do is go on Yo-Yo Factory adventures where we travel around the world. In the last two years, I've been to eleven different countries to bring yo-yos to people who normally wouldn't ever see yo-yos, or even know what a yo-yo is.
What does training for a competition look like? How many hours does that entail?
It really depends on the contest. For the World Contest, I'll pretty much spend all year training.That involves creating my own tricks and coming up with a unique approach for the contest: What kind of tricks do I want to do? Do I have enough difficult tricks? Unique tricks? Innovative tricks? But I also focus a lot on the performance, mixing my music, and choreographing the routine. I spend the year picking out the soundtrack, editing it together, matching the tricks with it, and turning everything into a story.
Is it difficult to come up with tricks that haven't already been done before? At the end of the day, you really only have a string and a yo-yo...
It's hard—but you'd be surprised how limitless it really is because there's a lot more involved in the trick than just what's happening with the string and the yo-yo. It could be the way you move your body with the trick, the way you move your hands, the timing of the trick, the pacing of the trick, the rhythm type of movements in the trick—a lot goes into building a trick than just what's physically happening with the string and the yo-yo.
"There could be a ten-year-old Japanese kid who's just destroying the competition, and then also some dude from Russia who's 30."—Gentry Stein
What are your competitors like at these events?
There's not a certain type of person that's into yo-yoing, so you get people from all different cultures and backgrounds. Say you were at the World Contest, for example. There could be a ten-year-old Japanese kid who's just destroying the competition, and then also some dude from Russia who's 30. That's what's cool about it: it's a sport, but you don't need to be athletic—pretty much anyone can do it. I think that's a big reason why yo-yoing is so special.
What are the biggest misconceptions about yo-yoing that you come across?
People can be a little close-minded. Yo-yos are a toy, sure, but so are basketballs. I think people could be more open to the possibilities of what can be done with them—if you bring other influences into the picture, you can create something really cool with it all.
Any advice for aspiring yo-yoers?
It's actually really important what yo-yo you get. If you pick up a poor-quality yo-yo, it's going to make the learning process really difficult. The yo-yo I used at Nationals that I created with Yo-Yo Factory is built to be really easy for beginners to use.
What I love most about yo-yoing is that you can do it anywhere at anytime—you're not limited in it. It's very small and doesn't take up much space, so if you're waiting at the bus stop or hanging with friends, you can pull out your yo-yo and play around with it. Obviously, it all takes a lot of practice, but in the end it's really rewarding.