Ryan Johnson, Published August 27 2013
VIDEO: NDSU student, competitive yo-yoer John Narum aims to boost sport
But the 19-year-old North Dakota State University sophomore said it’s easier to show than tell what he can do.
“If you tell someone, ‘I’m a professional yo-yo player,’ usually a lot of people won’t really care,” he said. “It’s something that you have to pull out of your pocket, which says a lot about how unique it is. It’s literally the only thing you can pull out of your pocket and amaze someone with.”
Narum was hooked on the yo-yo when he saw a kid doing two-handed tricks on Bill Cosby’s “Kids Say the Darndest Things.”
He was only 4 at the time but said he remembers thinking it was the “coolest thing ever.” The Minnetonka, Minn., native wanted to learn how to do the tricks himself, and after some prodding, his parents bought him a Duncan Butterfly and found a yo-yo club for kids in nearby Minneapolis.
Still, Narum said his passion far exceeded his talent in making the plastic trick yo-yo move gracefully.
“I was terrible at it, quite frankly,” he said.
Narum persisted, going to the club every Friday until it closed down five years later. But his time with other yo-yo enthusiasts allowed him to master the fundamental moves that make up basic tricks, and he became an intermediate yo-yoer at the age of 8.
He said he dove into the sport on his own, perfecting “off-string” tricks, where the string isn’t attached to the
yo-yo, and went professional three years later. He registered for the 2005 World Yo-Yo Contest, setting the lofty goal of making the finals.
“When I made the finals, it was just kind of like, ‘Go out there and do your thing.’ It ended up being enough to take it all,” he said.
Looking back on it now, Narum says he realizes he wasn’t aware of the enormous pressures of competing when he beat out the other professionals and became the junior world champion at age 11.
“I think it’s because when you’re so young and you find you’re pretty decent at something, you tend to ignore all these other things going on that affect older people,” he said. “That’s why it was a lot easier for me to learn it when I was younger because it was really just a race against myself.”
Narum has remained competitive in the years since his first big win. But he said he wanted to change it up for this year’s World Yo-Yo Contest held earlier this month, his first time competing on an international level since retiring from his main “off-string” style this past year.
He instead geared up for the 1A freestyle division, the most competitive style in the world because every yo-yoer does it, and aimed to make it into the semifinals.
“I was just wanting to challenge myself more and focus more on my secondary style,” he said.
Narum said he dove into training before the big contest, putting in 2 to 4 hours of yo-yoing each day. Some of that practice included running through the same choreographed routine hundreds of times, but he admitted some of his training might seem a bit “loose” by comparison.
“Practice for me is a lot different than practicing an ice-skating routine,” he said. “I could be watching TV and just doing yo-yo tricks, or I could be hanging out with my girlfriend and I could be doing tricks and thinking of new things to put together.”
Narum again did better than his self-imposed goal of making it to the semi-finals, placing fifth in the semifinals and finishing 17th overall, the fourth-best performance among the Americans – a “really big accomplishment” considering he had to beat out about 200 competitors to make it to the semifinals.
GROWING THE SPORT
Narum’s now starting his second year at NDSU, where he’s studying mechanical engineering and going for minors in mathematics and computer science.
He said he’s always loved math and science, and he’s found a way of connecting those interests to his passion for yo-yos that could help guide his career path.
“The whole idea of manufacturing and how it ties into yo-yoing has always fascinated me,” he said.
Narum served as an intern for the past year and a half for YoYoJam, a top company that also sponsors him, and said he’s been trying to learn the key components and tricks behind making yo-yos.
The experience could pay off for his plan to eventually launch his own yo-yo company, but he said that would most likely be a side project. His goal is to work for 3M or another manufacturing company in the Twin Cities once he’s done with school, and he said many of the applications behind making yo-yos could be applied to almost any other part of the manufacturing field.
But he can remain competitive in the yo-yo world for years, and he plans to compete – in between tests and classes.
“My priorities have obviously shifted a little bit because college has a lot more weight to it than middle school and high school,” he said.
Narum also is keeping busy trying to spread his love of yo-yoing through performing for groups and schools in the region and organizing the Minnesota state yo-yo contest that will be held next April.
Naurm said it is possible to make a living from yo-yoing, and he has received money – and yo-yos – for winning contests.
But the yo-yo community needs to bridge the deep divide between competitive yo-yoers and those who do public outreach and shows for entertainment, he said.
“We’re in the stage where if we want to become bigger, it’s all about more awareness rather than competitiveness,” he said.
The predecessor of the modern yo-yo dates back more than 2,000 years and is believed to have started in the Philippines, he said. It exploded in popularity in 1928 when it was brought to America as a toy by Pedro Flores.
Entrepreneur Donald Duncan realized the potential of the fad and bought out the Flores Yo-Yo Corp. in 1932, making Duncan a household name synonymous with yo-yos.
Narum said the ensuing “yo-yo boom” continued into the 1990s, spreading across the world to 52 countries. But its hype has fizzled in recent decades, overtaken by newer toys and video games.
He said the sport is now at a crossroads, and the yo-yo world needs to find its own Steve Jobs-like visionary who can make it a must-have item once again.
Narum said he considers yo-yoing to be both an art and a sport. While it’s a fad, he said there’s potential for it to become recognized as a sport, not just a toy, and it could become an Olympic event if the two camps unite.
“The reality is it’s up to the yo-yo community if we’re willing to make it big enough,” he said.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587