Lake Tahoe is home to many world-class athletes, from skiers and snowboarders to swimmers and runners. Then, there's Turner Thorne, whose unassuming hobby, kendama, has landed him on the national stage.
A kendama is piece of wood with two cups and a spike. A ball with a single hole is attached to the wooden handle with a short length of string. The object of the game is to perform a technical series of maneuvers, catching the ball on the cups, spiking it, spinning it from the string or flipping the handle back onto the ball.
Though the game originated in Japan centuries ago, its popularity in the U.S. is exploding, with demonstrations and competitions happening across the nation. Now on the national team, U.S. Kendama, Thorne has been riding the game's wave, traveling the country and showing off his curious talent.
"I love the fact that you can never master it," Thorne said. "It's kind of like skiing or skateboarding in that way."
When he hurt his knee skiing three years ago, Thorne had little to do but toy with a kendama a friend had given him. He began to make videos and post them on the web. On a whim, he entered one of his clips in a U.S. Kendama competition. And he won.
"We were surprised to hear he'd been taken onto the national team," said Bob Daly, owner of Shoreline of Tahoe, which sells kendamas.
Thorne now has his own pro-model kendama and his Youtube videos have thousands of views. He's become one of the foremost ambassadors of the game in the U.S. and has taught kendama and done demonstrations in New York City, Atlanta and San Francisco. Next month, he'll embark on a kendama tour along the West Coast that will stop in South Lake Tahoe on June 11.
"This has taken a big role in my life since I made the team," Thorne said. "Definitely, if I could, I'd like to have kendama as a lifestyle."
With the game's growth, it just might become a full-time job for the 23-year-old. There's no question that it has taken off locally.
"You can come up during any break and see a lot of students playing with them," said South Tahoe High School principal Ivone Larson. "They're fascinated by it."
What's surprising to both Larson and Daly is that the game is seemingly so simple compared to the complexities of iPhones, iPods, XBox and other gaming technology.
"It's healthy for this electronic community to take a huge step back to this ancient Japanese toy," Daly said.
But kendama is hardly easy. Daly could barely catch the ball in the cups, he said.
"It takes a lot of concentration," Thorne said. "Just getting your mind clear and focused helps so much."
Those that have taken up the game in recent years have elevated it to new heights, Thorne added.
"A lot of the videos are blowing us away," he said. "They're showing us things that we didn't even realize could be done."