High school student Michael Nakamura is preparing to compete in August for another world title at the World Yo-Yo Championship in Tokyo.
By Connie K. Ho, Contributor
All eyes were recently on Michael Nakamura. Second by second, minute by minute, a small crowd began to gather at Weller Court in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo. With yo-yos spinning in his hand and a razor focus, he kept the crowd captivated as milling tourists attempted to snap pictures of the teen. Nakamura isn’t your average high school student — he’s a yo-yo champion on the road to securing more titles before graduation.
Nakamura began yo-yoing at a young age. He remembers receiving his first yo-yo from his father when he was 7 or 8 years old. He attempted some easy tricks, but then put it aside for some time. It wasn’t until he was 12 that he picked up the yo-yo again and began watching videos on YouTube of yo-yo competitions in Japan. From that time on, he had an intense interest to learn more tricks and, pretty soon, he was making up his own moves and participating in yo-yo competitions. He entered his first yo-yo contest in 2010.
“I think the biggest part of [the yo-yo] community is how helpful and supportive they are,” said Nakamura, a Southern California native. “It’s kind of a nice mixture — there are sport athletes, math geeks, and everyone can gather around and share the same interest in this one sport.”
Nakamura, who turns 18 this month, spends his down time developing new tricks, whether that might be in the classroom, at home or out and about. He practices approximately one hour a day, with more time on the weekends.
“Once I have a yo-yo in hand, I try to execute [the trick] and then start from there. It takes a really long time to make it competition-worthy,” said Nakamura, who attends North Hollywood High School. “First, I start with the basic elements, then from there, I kind of add in more stuff that would make it score higher in a contest. Then, as time goes on, I make adjustments to it.”
In 2013, Nakamura was crowned the World Yo-Yo champion in the 4A, otherwise Offstring Division. This year, he’s already won the North American Yo-Yo Championship in Las Vegas and the Pacific Northwest Regional Yo-Yo Contest in Seattle. He’s also planning to attend the World Yo-Yo Championship, which will be held in August in Tokyo.
“There are so many variables, so I usually shoot for top three, do my best and see where I end up,” said Nakamura, who cites traveling and sightseeing as one of the highlights of participating in the yo-yo competitions.
A busy student, Nakamura juggles yo-yo training along with five Advanced Placement courses and karate classes (he’s a brown belt). When he’s at home, he’ll choreograph a routine and practice it over and over again until he feels comfortable. You’ll see him with his yo-yos often, including visits to the supermarket and the mall. He also utilizes his morning commute to practice yo-yoing and find songs for competitions that fit his style, with selections from musicians such as music producer and DJ Zedd.
“I use a lot of electronic music, but I also mix in other songs for slow and fast paces in the routine so I could mix it up in my routine,” Nakamura said.
Much of the time during practices, he’ll video chat with other yo-yo experts from around the world.
“In Japan, they definitely take it a lot more seriously. It’s very organized — everyone has a strict mind-set on what helps them place higher in competitions,” Nakamura said.
During the year, Nakamura participates in multiple competitions leading up to the world championship. The performance consists of two to three minutes of edited music with a choreographed routine. In competition, participants are judged on a number of criteria, including trick difficulty, creativity and uniqueness of the trick. Along with the technical components, the judging panel looks at the performance in terms of choreography, musicality, stage presence and the use of a story line or theme.
“My favorite part of the contests is when we (the competitors) can relax and hang out with each other,” said Nakamura, alluding to the final portion of the competition when all the performances have finished. His parents are supportive of his yo-yo endeavors, with his mother, Tuti, normally accompanying him on the trips to competitions.
He’s the oldest son of Japanese and Indonesian immigrants and, apart from competing, Nakamura showcases his yo-yo skills at community events where he demonstrates tricks and teaches other kids how to use the yo-yo.“Through yo-yoing, I’ve learned to be more approachable to other people,” Nakamura said. “Any yo-yoer you see — they will never have the same tricks that they do. They always have their own specific style, so because of how open you can be and how creative, that’s kind of what attracted me to it.”
He has no plans to do yo-yo full-time after graduating high school, but Nakamura is setting his sights on attending college, either majoring in business or engineering. He’s also currently sponsored by YoYoAddict, who provides him equipment and royalties based off his signature yo-yo model. The company is under his role model, Hiroyuki Suzuki; Nakamura was first inspired to pursue yo-yo more seriously after watching videos of Suzuki, who is a four-time world yo-yo champion himself.
“His style, how he carries himself onstage — I wanted to bring a similar stage presence,” Nakamura said.
With the past five to six years of his life consumed with yo-yo competitions, Nakamura has collected, traded and sold his fair share of yo-yos. He’s since amassed a collection of about 200 yo-yos and, of that number, he usually sticks to five to six different yo-yos for competitions. His normal lineup of yo-yos can normally be seen sitting in a bookshelf in his room or laid out in a yo-yo case.
“It’s kind of like in baseball, where people have different gloves that they like, maybe different shapes or sizes,” Nakamura said. “Yo-yos have different weight distributions and shapes and how they’re produced.” For those on the fence about yo-yos, Nakamura encourages people of all skill levels to try it out. Newbies can start off with basic tricks like walk the dog, trapeze or split the atom. Sites like yoyoexpert.com can walk people through the steps in completing these simple tricks.
“Anyone can learn — the biggest advice is to really stick with it because, in the beginning, it’s difficult to get the basics down, but once you get the basics, it’s a lot more fun,” Nakamura said. “The hard work you put into yo-yoing really pays off in the end. Not only do you have a way to push yourself, but there’s also competitions and a supportive community to help you out.”