photos: Harrison Lee, yo-yo wizard. Photo: Carlos Tello

Rolling like thunder - meet Harrison Lee, yo-yo wizard

I have always believed that what makes a performer great is not just talent, an almost obsessive attention to detail and a flawless execution. To me, the best performers are the ones who can convince audiences that there’s no effort involved in what they’re doing—that they, too, could be charming spectators onstage if they decided to. When I saw 15-year-old Burnaby-based yo-yo prodigy Harrison Lee perform, I instantly believed that the only difference between him and me was that he owned a yo-yo.

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But as with many other great performers, Harrison has worked hard to hone his craft. When the 15-year-old first put his hands
on a yo-yo three-and-a-half years ago, he struggled. He watched countless YouTube video tutorials. He practiced tirelessly. Now, he’s a yo-yo master. And he’s constantly working to improve his skills.

“I yo-yo whenever I’m not sleeping, eating or doing my homework,” he says, smiling.

Harrison became interested in yo-yos while watching a friend yo-yoing at school. Mesmerized by the skillful, complex tricks he saw, he went to his father and asked him to get him a yo-yo. Harrison’s dad, Harry Lee, was baffled.

“When he asked me he wanted to buy a yo- yo, I thought: ‘That’s an old-school toy that I used to play with,’” he says. “I never thought kids played with yo-yos anymore.”

The kinds of yo-yos Harrison uses to perform are not the wooden or plastic ones common among schoolchildren. Harrison’s professional-grade yo-yos are made of aluminum, which allows for stability, balance and high speed.

Unlike wooden and plastic yo-yos, which can be purchased at dollar stores, professional ones range from $30 to $300, he says.
Harrison didn’t realize the depth of his skill until he and some friends decided to participate in the Western Canadian Yo-yo Competition. He finished in second place in the junior division, far ahead of most of his pals.

“I really didn’t know what I could expect going into this competition, because I
had been only yo-yoing for six months,” Harrison recalls humbly. “So, I guess at that point I was like: ‘Yeah, I’m pretty good at yo-yoing.’”

After the Western Canadian Competition, nationals and World Yo-yo Contests followed. He won the 2013 Canadian Yo-yo Competition and has competed in the last three world championships. Harrison now ranks 26th in the world.

Yo-yoing has earned Harrison international accolades and it’s also boosted his personal development. He has become more self-confident and has learned how to perform in front of large crowds. It has also helped him manage stress while dealing with schoolwork.

Harrison’s newly gained abilities have encouraged him to try teaching and giving motivational speeches, too. He now gives lessons on how to yo-yo to other kids at his school. Earlier this year, he gave a talk titled “Life is like a yo-yo” at a TEDx conference.

High-profile gigs also accompany
the hardship of funding travelling and equipment. A sponsorship allows Harrison not to worry about the price of yo-yos, but he and his family still have to find ways to pay for travelling costs when he participates in world championships. Two months ago, for example, he flew to Prague, in the Czech Republic, for the 2014 World Yo-yo Contest.

Harrison’s family was able to pay for the trip by turning it into a family vacation. But if he plans to continue yo-yoing professionally in the future, he will have to find ways to make it sustainable.

He’s still in high school, so there are years before Harrison must decide whether to turn yo-yoing into a full-time job. For now, his chief concern is the challenge of generating fresh material: he’s constantly working to come up with new tricks to keep audiences at the edges of their seats.

Harrison’s next performance takes place at TEDxKids@BC on November 16 at the Michael J. Fox Theatre (7373 Macpherson Avenue), Burnaby, B.C.

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