Monday, April 18, 2016

For Dough-Spinning World Champion, Victory at Last

In the pizza business, where margins of profit and loss are tight and often unpredictable, the difference between success and shutting down can be elusive. Small things, like the weight of the toppings you put on your pizza or cutting an exactly sized dough ball, can have a huge cumulative impact on the bottom line. In 2016 at the World Pizza Championship in Parma, Italy, Gold Medal winner Jammie Culliton used precise dance moves and a heavy helping of dough-spinning sleight of hand—and feet—to claim his first freestyle acrobatics title after two frustrating years of second-place finishes.

The St. Petersburg, Florida, pizza chef and entrepreneur was narrowly bested last year by Japanese techno-dance virtuoso spinner Takumi Tachikawa. With two consecutive near misses on the pizza world’s biggest stage, Culliton went back to work last spring in sunny St. Pete with one consuming mission. He would push his dance-infused, high-speed behind-the-back, between-the-legs and flat-on-the-floor dough juggling antics a notch higher. He even kicked in a couple of signature hand-stand dough boots. When the purple-striped shirt and trademark fedora-decked pizza athlete concluded his performance April 13, the dial on the fans-go-crazy noise machine read “11.”

Leading going into the freestyle acrobatic finals, Culliton refused to buckle under the pressure of being within a floury grasp of his life’s ambition. He never seemed to break a sweat during his five-minute routine, but after the announcement that he had finally tasted victory, emotion set in. The tension of two straight years of tantalizing runner-up anticlimaxes washed away in the excited screams of spectators and his ecstatic American teammates. They hoisted him on their shoulders and paraded him around the Parma arena in a scene that carried similar emotional intensity as the iconic moment when the World Champion Green bay Packers shouldered legendary Coach Vince Lombardi on the frozen tundra. Culliton beamed broadly and, perhaps, shed a tear or two of happy relief as his exhilarated Groupon U.S. Pizza Team colleagues shared the release they had all waited for. When asked how it felt to finally hit paydirt, Culliton said simply, but profoundly, “Feels pretty damn good!” He added, “This was a long-time coming—12 to 13 years working on this skill and my seventh trip to Italy.”

The new World Champion may have found extra motivation from two years of razor-thin second banana angst. But he wants future dough-spinners to know victory, in competition and running a pizzeria, is built on the hard-working shoulders of perseverance and teamwork. "In my first competition, I came in last," he admits. “If that can be an inspiration to anybody....if I can start from last and win gold, you guys can, too. But it's not about being the champion. It's about being part of a team. I couldn't have done any of this without each and every team member who has been supporting me all these years."

Jamie Culliton knows better than anyone, “Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose.” Authentic winners, in the pizza business and life, understand the secret to success is what you do after you lose.