The World’s New Yo-Yo Champ Explains Why Yo-Yoing Is More Extreme Than You Think

In his first post-victory interview, 18-year-old Gentry Stein talks about yo-yo money, yo-yo groupies and yo-yo's future.

You probably don’t think of yo-yo as an X Games-style sport like snowboarding and motocross — you probably don’t think of yo-yo at all — but an underground revival just exploded into the mainstream thanks to Gentry Stein’s performance at the World Yo-Yo Contest 2014 in Prague, bringing the gold home for Team USA. (Well, Team Yo-Yo Factory.) The video’s now at a quarter-million views:

Stein has had a lot of media requests today, but he gave MTV News the first phone call. We asked him about his style, haters, groupies and whether he can possibly do for yo-yo what Tiger Woods did for golf at the same age.

Usually yo-yo doesn’t make the news, but this video is huge right now.
Oh yeah, definitely. I’ve been running on 40 hours no sleep and just got back home — I’m pretty exhausted — so it’s pretty cool.

Have you been practicing all your life, or did you pick it up more recently?
I got a yo-yo for Christmas when I was younger, and it was actually from Yo-Yo Factory, the company I’m sponsored by now. I started about seven years ago — I started when I was in third grade — and I did it for a couple years, but got bored with it. Then I figured out I could start competing in contests, and I got back into it in middle school.

How’d you hear about the contests?
The U.S. Nationals is in Chico, California, my hometown. Last October I won the U.S. Nationals, so that gave me the seed into the semifinals at the world contest — it’s the fourth time I’ve competed at the world contest.

Are most of the competitors around your age?
It’s mostly like 14 to 25 or 30. It’s mostly people in their early 20s and late teens.

The intense music surprised us — it sounds like something you’d hear in a nightclub.
Exactly! That’s one reason I’m really glad I could win. Yo-yoing has changed so much from what most people think — like it’s some lame children’s toy. It’s obviously completely different than that. There’s a lack of knowledge of what it has become. Now that I won this and the video’s going viral, it can open up some opportunities for me to share some knowledge.

When did that re-branding start?
I’m not really sure. People used to play with yo-yos that had a fixed axle, so you couldn’t spin very long, you couldn’t do many tricks. Then someone put a bearing inside the yo-yo, so people started to develop [more elaborate] tricks.

Now people are really exploring what else you can do with it — it’s putting a routine together with music, it’s so much more than what people think of.

How many hours per day do you practice?
That’s a hard question. Some days I don’t practice at all, some days I practice for three to four hours. A couple hours on average.

Are you getting calls about doing commercials now?
I flew back the day after the contest, so…I’ve only been online looking at stuff for the past few hours. We’ll see.

Forgive our ignorance, but can you make a living from yo-yo at the championship level, or is it more just for fun?
You can make some decent money from royalties — I have a signature model yo-yo from Yo-Yo Factory. A skater will have a signature deck, I have a yo-yo called “The Shutter.” I’ll get royalties from those, they’re sold all around the world.

Do you foresee yo-yo ever having a presence at the X Games and Warped Tour?
That’s where I want it to go. I want to help with the image that yo-yo can be cool. … I want to make yo-yoing bigger; I want to be the person who can blow yo-yoing up into something people on the street can recognize as being really cool. Yo-yoing has so much potential, but the [perception] killed the vibe.

People think skateboarding is super cool. All it is is a board with wheels. All yo-yoing is is a wheel with a piece of string, but there’s no reason skateboarding should be seen as cooler in my opinion.

Are there yo-yo groupies? Are women sending you fan emails?
I dunno, I haven’t really checked my email…my Facebook totally blew up. I have a girlfriend now, she’s sitting right next to me.

How does your personal style differ from other competitors’?
You watch some other players and they’ll stand in one spot and do a bunch of super technical stuff that isn’t appealing to people who don’t yo-yo. What I do is tricks that are flashier and bigger that will look cooler — well-choreographed, almost like a dance routine. That’s my favorite part of it, putting the routine together.

Do you get criticism for being too flashy?
That does happen…because my tricks aren’t as small and technical as the other players’. Some players think my tricks aren’t as good, but they don’t put the routines together.

Do older people come up to you and share their yo-yo stories from way back when?
Definitely. I ran into this dude and his wife, talking about being yo-yo champions in the ’70s with “rock the baby.” That’s cool they have that story, and so many people have that same story: “I was a yo-yo champion in the ’60s, and I did ‘walk the dog,’” but that’s what’s killing the image.

What I’m thinking now is, if we can continue to push this video when it’s going viral — and to get as many people as possible to see what it’s becoming — we can talk about that instead of how their grandpa was good at something.

Writer/Editor at MTV News. Author of "The Heming Way" and "'90s Island."
@martybeckerman