Winning is spinning: Go Big Skill Toys of Shawnee has its own yo-yo team

Zach Compton, 11, of Kansas City took second place in his age division for freestyle yo-yoing at a Go Big Skills contest in December, held at the store in Shawnee.
Zach Compton, 11, of Kansas City took second place in his age division for freestyle yo-yoing at a Go Big Skills contest in December, held at the store in Shawnee. Special to the Star

Jacob Vaughn falls to his knees but his yo-yo keeps moving. The song “W.O.L.F.” by Yellow Claw, a Dutch techno trio, has electrified the air of a freestyle contest at Go Big Skill Toys.

Vaughn slowly flattens his body to the floor, legs bent, until his back touches the carpet. His yo-yo flies over his head in a tight orbit, and he lifts his shoulders slightly and wraps the string around his upper body, then just as quickly rewraps the string around his yo-yo.

Vaughn was a big name at the 2014 Kansas yo-yo championships and is a freshman at Olathe South. He’s on fire.

Go Big Skill Toys is a Shawnee toy store, yes, but it’s about much more than toys, says owner Cesar Conde.

“Nike has ‘Just Do It.’ We have ‘Discover Your Talent,’” he says. “Once you discover your talent you are not going to keep it to yourself. You didn’t learn it by yourself, and you’ll share it with others.”

Go Big is the only toy store in the region that emphasizes learning a particular skill with yo-yos and has its own team to display that skill. Conde said the closest similar operation is in Colorado.

Conde, a native of the Philippines, wears his red Go Big Skill apron over a bright blue sweater. The walls of the shop are each painted a vibrant yo-yo shade, honoring the toy that Conde refers to as his bread and butter.

The yo-yos in stock range from $4.99 to a 24-karat gold-plated beauty for $175.

“The selection here is amazing. There’s stuff you can’t find anywhere else,” says Rechal Rivas, assistant manager. “And if we don’t have what a customer is looking for, we go out of our way to find it and call the person back.”

Before becoming a toy store owner Conde worked as a group leader of clinical processing at Quest Diagnostics for 24 years. When he needed a change his son Ben, a senior in marketing at DePaul University, suggested he open a toy store with a focus on yo-yos.

The store’s concept would be similar to the now defunct Lenexa store Wind Wizards, where the Conde boys began their yo-yo journey. Wind Wizards closed in 1996.

Conde spent a year taking business-related courses at Johnson County Community College in preparation for making the transition to small-business owner. From there he investigated shops across the country for inspiration and a business model.

His store opened Oct. 21, at 10 Quivira Plaza in Shawnee at the corner of Shawnee Mission Parkway and Quivira Road.

But why yo-yos?

In Berlin, an ancient Greek vase shows a boy with a yo-yo. The Chinese may have had them earlier. Centuries-old illustrations show women playing with them in India and France, where it is called a bandalore.

Then somebody in California began making them in the 1920s.

Things have advanced since then: Internal ball bearings, dimples to reduce air resistance, changeable axles. The shapes? Imperial, Butterfly, Puck, Ball, Slimline, Bulge Face, Satellite, Coaster — just to name some.

Physics is being harnessed for more and more complex tricks, hundreds of them.

Just as the toy has been around for centuries, it’s been part of the Conde family for years. Ben has been sponsored by Yoyojam since he was 7, competing nationally. Andrew Conde, a University of California, Los Angeles senior studying music, was sponsored by Yomega as a child.

The store got its name from Ben — leave it to the marketing major. With the professional yo-yo name of “Go Big,” he won freestyler of the year at the 2011 world contest in Orlando, Fla.

When Ben and Andrew are in town they help at the store as they did during the December contest and show. While the judges tabulated scores, the two kept four yo-yos going for most of their performance.

Ben’s specialty is off-the-string tricks, which is when the yo-yo separates completely from the string, shoots into the air, then lands on the string like a leaping tightrope walker.

In addition to competitions featuring freestyle and sport ladder contests, the store hosts free workshops every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Family game nights are on the third Friday of each month.

For those who are out of practice with their yo-yoing, sport ladder is a list of 25 progressively more difficult tricks with vibrant names like Spirit Bomb, Gerbil, and Boingy-Boingy.

Only two misses are allowed on the sport ladder before the contestant is out. Fifteen hopefuls entered the store’s most recent event, including two in the 45-and-older group. That was won by Sarah Hirsch, 51, who took up yo-yoing about a year ago.

Francisco Torres, a seventh-grader at Trailridge Middle School and a judge, coolly called out the tricks to Jonathan Swieton. “Rock the Baby five full rocks … Elevator, all the way up …”

Swieton, a home-schooled Shawnee 12th-grader, busted out every move through No. 18: Kwijibo. His yo-yo needed to loop around a finger and land on another section of string three times in a sort of folding motion and he couldn’t quite make it happen.

Swieton is not on Team Go Big, which is limited to seven members, but is looking into it.

While attending the workshops has been a great way to connect with other kids, he’s picked up his skills in equal measure from YouTube videos.

To join the team, Conde says he looks for “personality, character, and a passion for yo-yoing.” The skills will come.

He invests a lot in and expects a lot of the team members, so they need to be a respectful, hard-working bunch.

To illustrate how he gathers his team members, now ranging in age from 10 to 16, he cites Torres who is a leader now and will be an employee when he’s old enough.

As he does with each applicant, Conde met with Torres’ parents and gathered character references from other yo-yoers.

Conde says parents are key players because team members must travel to shows around the area and competitions out of state. He is trying to figure out how to take them to international competitions like the World Yo-Yo Contest in Tokyo, which takes place in a different country each year.

“Family and academics come before the team,” Conde says. Torres has achieved that life balance for a year now.

“I’m so proud of Francisco. And Zeekio Skill Toys has just agreed to sponsor him.”

Conde stocks a variety of toys and games unrelated to yo-yos, but he says, “I don’t want to add too many products because I need that space for the kids.” The front section of his store is roped off as an informal stage.

He sells a variety of educational toys and his selection of novelty items like bacon-flavored lip balm and mood rings is not skimpy. He also carries standbys like puzzles, Legos, and Hula Hoops.

His biggest sellers, second to the yo-yo, are board games, particularly from Blue Orange.

Watch for the Go Big Skill team’s performance at the Asian Cultural Festival on April 25 in Overland Park. You can check out the store’s to see what a string and a spool can be made to do these days.

each Anne Kniggendorf, send