McKenna Zentner’s life has its ups and downs — hundreds, actually, every day. Not the stereotypical emotional ups and downs of a teenage girl, but the ups and downs of a teenage girl who loves yo-yos.
In her Mountain Green home, Zentner practices tricks and combos — sometimes hours at a time — until she gets each move just right, throwing a yo-yo into the air and catching it on an elaborate string web created around her hands, then popping it back into the air after wrapping the string around her arm, and finally bringing it back to her waiting hand.
Zentner discovered her love of yo-yos about 3 1/2 years ago, during a middle school assembly that included yo-yo tricks. After the show she bought a couple of yo-yos, but soon realized they weren’t what she wanted.
“I wanted more expensive, good-looking yo-yos,” she said.
She upgraded to high-end professional performance yo-yos. Made of metal instead of plastic, with ball bearings, these yo-yos cost $100 or more — but they allowed her to upgrade her skills.
“She was doing tricks guys have taken six or seven years to be able to figure out ... and she was already doing them after a year,” said her mother, Gail Zentner.
Girl yo-yo devotees, like Zenter, are a bit rare.
“You see more and more females playing, but still I dare say they’re outnumbered about 20-to-1, as an anecdotal estimate,” said Thom Edlund of Granite, president of the Utah Yo-Yo Consortium, a club for yo-yo fans.
Zentner, a 17-year-old Morgan High School junior, is basically a self-taught yo-yo player.
“I just went on YouTube,” she said. “There are a lot of videos.”
When she first started, it took about three days to learn a trick. Now, she says, it’s more like three hours.
In addition to tutorials, she looks for videos of champions that she can analyze for tips and ideas — especially her favorite yo-yo expert, Gentry Stein, a yo-yo champion from California. She puts an iPad on her lap, with the screen facing away from her body but tilted up to see. In that position, she can better follow the movements instead of having to reverse everything.
She also occasionally attends meetings of the Utah Yo-Yo Consortium, which are usually held a couple of times a month at a library in South Jordan.
“She’s pretty good,” Edlund said. “She could compete.”
He’s not the only one with that opinion. Dale Myrberg of Salt Lake City, the 1996 world champion who’s been inducted into the American Yo-Yo Association’s Yo-Yo Hall of Fame, remembers seeing Zentner at a club meeting.
“She was doing some pretty nice stuff, as I recall,” he said.
Zentner’s family and friends say it makes sense that she’d have mad yo-yo skills — she’s good at anything that requires hand coordination.
“She can write with her right and left hands,” said Gail Zentner. “Even when we were in East Layton, at the elementary school she would get the ‘Flying Fingers’ award ... because she was typing 84 words a minute.”
She’s also taken a few American Sign Language classes.
“She’s picked up on it extremely fast. ... for a hearing person, really, really fast,” said Destiny Field, a teacher and counselor at Morgan High School.
But that’s not all. Zentner can solve a Rubik’s Cube in less than a minute.
“You can watch her solving the cube, and she’ll be turning the top and side rows while her pinkies are changing the bottom row at the same time,” said her mother. “It amazes me.”
These aren’t skills shared by her parents, or her twin brother, Parker Zentner.
“We have yet to figure out what it is in her brain that clicks that way,” said Gail Zentner.
Yo-yo competitions are held in many states, although Utah hasn’t had one for several years. There are also regional contests, nationals and the World Yo-Yo Contest held each year in Orlando, Fla.
Zentner and her family traveled to the World Yo-Yo Contest in 2012, where she was able to meet fellow yo-yoers she’s connected with online.
While there she caught the eye of a representative for Brazil’s Timeless yo-yo company, who offered a sponsorship deal. She was sponsored by the company for a while, but isn’t currently. Sponsors often pay for their players to compete, but Zentner hasn’t needed that help because she’s never entered a yo-yo competition.
“Stage fright,” she said.
To help herself get over it, she puts in extra practice in public places.
“That’s kind of why I yo-yo at the doctor’s office, or at school, is to slowly get rid of the fear,” she said.
She really pushed herself when she represented Morgan High School in a talent contest sponsored by KSL television, in the fall of 2012, on its short-lived “We Are Utah” show.
The original entry was a video of Zentner playing with her yo-yo and Rubik’s Cube, which she filmed and edited herself in just a couple of hours. That was OK, she said, because it was just her and a camera — not a crowd of people watching.
She didn’t win the competition, but she made the finals and a television crew visited the school.
“She doesn’t like the spotlight, so we really put her out of her comfort zone to perform in front of the student body, and be filmed,” said Field. “She did an amazing job.”
Whether she ever works up the courage to compete or not, Zentner plans to keep practicing and learning new combinations of tricks because she likes the challenge.
“It gets me going. There’s nothing that can really stop me from yo-yoing,” she said. “I think yo-yoing as a hobby is more just for fun, for me, instead of competing.”
Myrberg, who’s in his 70s, is still entertaining crowds with his yo-yos.
“I’m yo-yo crazy,” he said.
He saw that same zeal in Zentner.
“She will probably be yo-yo crazy the rest of her life, too,” he said.
• Pictures of people playing with yo-yos have been found on Greek vases dating to 500 B.C.
• European royals loved yo-yos, and had them made of glass and ivory. A painting from 1789 shows King Louis XVII playing with a yo-yo, and a print from 1791 pictures the Prince of Wales (the future King George IV) with the toy.
• Some French aristocrats are said to have played with yo-yos on their way to the guillotine, and soldiers played with them before battle as stress relievers — including French general Lafayette, and Napoleon and his army.
• Pedro Flores started the first yo-yo company in the United States in the late 1920s-early ’30s. Donald Duncan Sr. bought the trademark and company between 1930 and ’32.
• June 6 is National Yo-Yo Day, in honor of Donald Duncan Sr.’s birthday.
• The origin of the name yo-yo is a mystery. Early European names for the toy include bandalore, quiz, incroyable, emigrette, de Coblenz, and joujou de Normandie. Some say yo-yo is Tagalog for “come-come,” and others say it’s an Americanization of “joujou.”
— Museum of Yo-Yo History website (www.yoyomuseum.com) and Wikipedia