International yo-yo champion calls Cleveland home

Colin Beckford, a 15-year-old junior at St. Ignatius High School, practices two to four hours a day. He doesn’t play video games, he doesn’t watch television. This past summer he beat out hundreds to win the 2015 International Yo-Yo Championship (IYYC). His performance at the World Yo-Yo Contest in Toyko this year ranks him 17th on the planet. Beckford is an international yo-yo champion. You read that right – yo-yos.

In pursuit of excellence, this past summer alone, Beckford traveled to Orlando, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan. In Minnesota he competed in the Midwest Regional Yo-Yo Championship and won in the 1A and 3A categories.* In Michigan he completed in the Mideast Regional Yo-Yo Championship, where he won 1A and 3A categories as well. In August it was the International Yo-Yo Championship in Los Angeles, where he took first place in the 1A category, beating about 50 competitors, some from Europe and Asia.

Beckford’s mom and dad, Dawn and Nelson, couldn’t be more proud. “At a very young age, Colin was fascinated by the alphabet -- he could recite it forwards or backwards,” Nelson says. “Then it was other alphabets, then weather, then maps and countries. His mind, his personality is to grasp and devour. He simply isn’t done with something unless he’s mastered it.”

Beckford’s parents point to his tenacity, focus and skill “[Yo-yoing] is not like throwing and catching a ball,” Dawn says. “There’s a lot more to it – it’s nerdy and smart; he’s really found his niche.” She suggests watching some of his skill on YouTube videos.

But why watch videos? Soon, Beckford and hundreds of like-minded enthusiasts will be demonstrating their skills right here. Cleveland will host the IYYC World Yo-Yo Contest (“Worlds”) August 3-6, 2016. Jeff Pacini, vice president of business development for the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission indicates the contest will feature over 1,000 competitors from more than 30 countries competing for $10,000 in cash prizes. It will pump $1.5 million into the regional economy next summer. Several weeks of programming and outreach introducing Cleveland-area youth to the basics of modern yo-yo play will precede the event. The same competition will be in Europe in 2017, and in Asia in 2018.

This August, he beat around 50 competitors, some from Europe and Asia, to win the IYYC championship. Right after he traveled to Tokyo for the World Competition, where he competed against hundreds and was the only American to make it from wildcards to finals --  placing 17th in the world.  It’s a designation he got through what he calls a poor performance, and he’s unhappy with it. “I got a knot,” he shrugs. “I never get one, but I did, and had to switch yo-yos.”

Fetching a spare yo-yo from the stage floor put him behind on his time, and “threw everything off.” Still, he landed at 17th because he didn’t cave under the pressure – he managed to switch yo-yos and regain his rhythm. “Some competitors can’t do that,” Dawn mentions. “Some just lose it and can’t recover.”

Beckford’s ultimate goal is to win Worlds, or at least place. Will that happen next year? “No, not next year,” he replies promptly, calculating. “It will take me… three years. That’s a rough estimate.” After achieving that item on the bucket list, Beckford is interested in being a judge for yo-yo competitions.

Similar to other amateur and professional games, various companies sponsor yo-yo competitors, and pay for travel, logo shirts and of course, yo-yos. Starting out, Beckford was sponsored by Duncan, the oldest manufacturer of yo-yos in the country, based in Middlefield, Ohio. Just this fall he left them for a smaller organization, Recess, out of Delaware, for the opportunity opportunity for professional growth. Beckford is interested in learning more about marketing, branding. He is also interested in the judging process, and has judged the Ohio States in July and some of the Nationals this weekend in Redondo Beach.

“Colin does his own negotiating,” Dawn says. “I can pay for a trip to Michigan or Pennsylvania, but we couldn’t get to the west coast or to Japan to compete without sponsorship.” Learning such business skills are sure to aid Beckford in whatever he pursues next, since he doesn’t see his current activities as a full time occupation in the future.

Beckford and his parents agree that his time spent with a yo-yo in his hand have helped him with focus, maturity, work ethic and organizations. “It’s a creative outlet as well,” Dawn says.

Watching Beckford swing a yo-yo up, down, then folded over like a game of cat’s cradle is simply mesmerizing. Does he ever get confused? “Rarely, but sometimes,” he answers, watching his yo-yo swing back and forth like a deranged pendulum. The object he’s working is not the typical $2 wood toy, but rather a higher-tech aluminum piece with steel axles and a poly-cotton string.“for better response.” Yo-yos used in competition cost from $35 to $200 apiece. Beckford has about 30 yo-yos currently. “Some people have hundreds in their collection,” he says. Then there’s the budget for string as Beckford goes through about 100 45-inch strings every month. (Sponsors don’t pay for everything).

“I put a lot of thought into the tricks – so my practice varies,” Beckford says. “I make my own tricks – pros make their own tricks.” Competitions are judged by a panel of three experts.

Points are given in three categories: technical execution, technical evaluation and performance evaluation. The technical aspects address the “clean hit” of each trick; the amount of variation; the unique quality of the trick. Performance points are given for use of music, use of space, body control and showmanship.

“That’s next – I want to work on my performance,” Beckford says. Does he ever get nervous? He shrugs. “It depends on the contest. Regionals, not really.” But he admits to being nervous for competitions he really wants to win or place well.

Beckford estimates there are about a dozen people” in all of Ohio who are enthusiasts like he is. But he “doesn’t really hang out” with them. Instead he keeps in touch with like-minded friends across the country, and all over the world, through social media. His friends at school sometimes ask him about his skill, but Beckford is reticent to just show off.

Should a classmate suggest Beckford’s endeavor is nerdy, Beckford has a quick comeback. “I don’t want to make this all about the money,” he says, “but when someone asks me that, I point out I made more money in a few days [of competition] than they made all summer.” Is he implying the typical jobs teens hold are less rewarding? “I enjoy what I do,” he says.

Beckford has taken full advantage of the day a man came to demonstrate yo-yos at his Old Brooklyn Community School, and made them available for sale afterwards. Beckford bought one, and mastered everything he could, so he put the toy aside.

About a year later, at age 11, he was watching a TV program, The Suite Life of Zack and Cody,” which featured a professional yo-yo competitor, and he realized he hadn’t even hit the tip of the iceberg. “We couldn’t find a yo-yo in all of Cleveland,” mom Dawn recalls. “Then we came across the Cleveland Yo-Yo club based in Collinwood (since disbanded), and that’s all she wrote.”

This week Beckford will be in Redondo Beach, California, to compete in the 2015 National Yo-Yo Contest. There, he hopes to place in the top ten so he can avoid being a wildcard at Worlds next summer.

Here’s hoping that soon Cleveland will have the chance to cheer on, and brag about a new, local World Champion.

Photos Bob Perkoski