“Being good at yo-yo isn’t an instant hookup, though,” he adds with a laugh.
Severance should know. The 22-year-old Valley resident is one of the world’s foremost competitive yo-yoists, currently ranked number 2 in both U.S. and global yo-yo standings. His talent has taken him everywhere from Denver to Prague, where the next World Yo-Yo Contest, in which he plans to participate, is slated for August. During his rise, he’s slept on the subway in Tokyo, been robbed in Budapest, and performed for exotic dancers in Vegas.
“Yo-yos are a lot like alcohol, in that it doesn’t change people so much as magnify who they really are,” Severance says. “So if you are already smooth with ladies, if you are a dope yo-yo player, especially a world and national champion, it will definitely help.”
Being “a dope yo-yo player” is pretty much the story of Severance’s young life. Shortly after graduating from high school, he was hired by the YoYoFactory, a Chandler-based firm that claims to build a better yo-yo and hires young yo-yo hotshots like Severance to demonstrate what its products are capable of, in the right hands. Severance regards yo-yoing as an art, and he’s one of only a handful of people in the world to make a full-time living from it.
Part of his job is also to watch for the next prodigy. “I can see potential in someone when they first pick up a yo-yo,” Severance says. “Someone who understands how to manipulate their hands in the correct ways, and can ‘read’ tricks – meaning, watch what I do and instantly copy that.”
That wouldn’t apply to most people. As Severance winds and unwinds and flips the string with almost preternatural deftness, the little disk darts between his hands and around his head like a living thing, a pesky insect he’s just barely able to control. His face is a mask of sober concentration throughout his long routine, but when he finishes, he bursts into a boyish smile of pleasure that seems to say, See what I did there?
Severance was seven years old when he first picked up a yo-yo, and concedes he “wasn’t immediately good at it.” The Wilmington, Del., native – his father is a Wilmington police officer; his mother works for DuPont – says he spent the next few years yo-yo-less, developing his creative side, “making full-length videos with my brother and friends, building ramps, painting skateboards. I’ve always been drawn to things people create on their own, or that have an independent driving spirit.”
Eventually, Severance’s interest in yo-yoing came back. “I had a great throw”– he kept his wrist straight, used his whole forearm on the release but tugged back with the wrist only – “but almost no resources to learn from. So I bought every tape, book, anything that had yo-yo tricks in it, and learned every one I could. Eventually when I got back into yo-yos and the Internet was prevalent, this was a lot easier, and my skill increased a lot in a small amount of time.”
Severance won his first yo-yoing world title in 2007 with a $20 Duncan model. He has also, he says, won two national titles, 15 regional titles, and something like 50 state titles. His victory at the World Yo-Yo Contest (run by the International Yo-Yo Federation) in 2007 came before he graduated high school. His success briefly put that graduation in jeopardy.
“I had already been courted by YoYoFactory at competitions to join their team after I finished school. I wanted to do it earlier, actually,” Severance recalls. “I always got straight As, but I got depressed and my grades suffered and my parents got upset.”
Severance was persuaded to reel in the diploma before launching his professional yo-yo career. Almost immediately after graduating, he moved to the Valley, and has worked as a “Promotions Specialist” for YoYo Factory ever since.
“When we first met Tyler, he was what people would quickly dismiss as ‘a young punk,’” says YoYoFactory co-founder Hans Van Dan Elzen. “He won world and national titles, but honestly that wasn’t his attraction. We watched him from a distance, talked to people close to him, and saw the opportunity to take his gift, his passion for yo-yo, from the living room to the world.”
Many weekends, this means holding court at Desert Ridge Marketplace in north Phoenix, where he offers free yo-yo instructions and, occasionally, organizes exhibitions. One recent event at the outdoor stage at Desert Ridge featured more than a dozen young yo-yo aces, mostly boys but some girls too, executing feats only a little less spectacular than Severance’s.
The most jaw-dropping aspect of these performances, for Boomer-era geezers of the dime store yo-yo “Walk the Dog” and “Around the World” school, is that in most cases, the yo-yos aren’t attached to the string. The insolent little showoffs just let the disk fly off the end of the string, then effortlessly re-catch and re-wind it on the string in midair. It doesn’t look possible.
Asked if he wants to make a lifelong career out of yo-yoing, Severance’s answer is a firm “definitely.” Along with his full-time YoYoFactory gig, Severance earns money through royalties on his pro models (see sidebar) and contest winnings, among other income sources.
Of college, he says “I’m not ignorant enough to think there’s nothing I could learn from it, but... somebody once told me never pay someone to teach you something you could learn for free. A lot of the career interests I had, like in social work, are covered by yo-yoing... I perform, I impact kids. I mean, if you had a set of skills, why would you want to do something else?”
Founded in 2004 by Australian yo-yoist Benjamin McPhee and Detroit transplant Hans “Yo-Hans” Van Dan Elzen, the YoYoFactory in Chandler (yoyofactory.com) produces several lines of quality yo-yos, both plastic and metal. “Each of our yo-yos contain proprietary technologies that make learning easier and are adaptable to your skill as your skill level improves,” Van Dan Elzen says. “We don’t make a $2.99 yo-yo because we know that $2.99 yo-yos don’t work. They fall apart, they break, they disappoint.” The prices for YoYoFactory yo-yos start at eight bucks, and go as high as $199.99 for the Ricochet. “It’s titanium and sparks when you walk the dog on concrete,” Van Dan Elzen says.
YoYoFactory has produced Tyler Severance signature models – the plastic Severe ($45) and the aluminum Supernova with a wider gap in the spool ($85) – made, Van Dan Elzen says, “to match his style as a player. Specifications-wise, these designs were far from traditional when we first made them, but now the yo-yo world is becoming a little bit more like Tyler. People want to be like him.
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