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Hes the P.T. Barnum of pizza pies, the Meadowlark Lemon of marinara, the well, its hard to watch Siler Chapman without getting a little carried away.
Truth is, the dough thrower and homegrown restaurateur doesnt need superlatives. Hes a bona fide three-time world champion. Hes got dollars worth of business sense and multiple pizzerias to prove it. But the adjectification is just so darn fun. Chapman, 28, is a halftime show waiting to happen.
Its fun, said the Waxhaw, N.C., native now living in Indian Land. I never thought we could take it that far.
I show up at one of four area Donatos run by Chapman to try my hand against the pizza acrobatics champ. Im expecting a guy covered in more white powder than a Bela Karolyi prodigy. Out walks a dead ringer for your neighborhood delivery guy. Thats how Chapman introduced himself to wife Amber, as happily wed as a couple married last May ought to be.
That was so I didnt take him for his money, I guess, Amber said. Thats what he says.
Shed never heard of pizza acrobatics, and had to YouTube the would-be suitor to understand his hobby common to restaurant openings, Italian festivals and industry trade shows. Despite video evidence of the worst moonwalk that Ive ever seen, Amber stuck with the relationship.
Its just about finding something creative that youve never seen, she said.
Its becoming harder to find people who havent seen Chapmans talent. Hes dazzled on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and Food Networks Pizza Battle. Hes thrown in such exotic locales as Salsomaggiore, Italy; the Dominican Republic, Germany, Ohio. Thats right Ohio.
I watch a warm-up routine doubling as customer entertainment. Following the dough is no piece of cake. Its rolling down his arms, flying off his foot. Hes juggling between his legs. Im impressed, but not intimidated. Ill fare better in my first contest than he did, a 2004 debacle in New York City. A place where they take their pizza seriously.
Got booed off the stage, Chapman said. It was really bad.
Six months of daily practice later, Chapman was a national champion. Three more years brought three world titles and a business bubbling with television exposure and internet hits.
He was young, and he just loved it, and he became one of the best, said California pizza pro Tony Gemignani.
Fresh off his 10th world championship, Gemignani may be the godfather of pizza competition. From his description, The Godfather and pie tossing arent that dissimilar.
You see a lot of people trying to cheat, said Gemignani, owner of Tonys Pizza Napoletana and founder of World Pizza Champions. You see a lot of foul play.
Were not talking about loosening the parmesan shakers, here. Try over-gelling hair and gluing dough for the biggest pizza toss. Or leaving glass and rocks in the flour pile to rip holes in rival dough.
Chapman isnt into funny business with me, except in agreeing to share his dining room stage. He shows me the whip technique for a basic throw, the roll from one hand down both shoulders to the other, how to catch a toss flat on my back. Im not sure we dont look like an act, the energetic showman effortlessly nailing each trick and me endangering children with my attempts. Were the Abbott and Costello of antipasto, and whoevers on first had best watch out for errant pre-crust.
Doing two at a time blindfolded really wows people, the self-titled has been of pie tossing tells me. The unicycle was really a showstopper.
Im hearing about conventions with 1,000 or more competitors, some individual events with as many as 500 entries. Gatherings of pie proprietors from most every country you could Google search, handstands and people lighting things on fire mid-routine. Im having a hard enough time finishing second in a two-man heat.
Its a Roswell dusk atop his head, perfect spinning saucers floating on command. Im tossing up calzones and soft tacos. Dough lumps crashing against the floor like chili night in the dairy pasture. Im just thankful were not baking my dough. Think air bubbles ugly up a pizza? Mines liable to pass for Quasimodo naked.
One slip, one mess up and the judge sees it, kills a score, Chapman said.
For our big finish, I actually nail a trick. Its the hardest one he showed me, a running heel kick over my shoulder that would make Lionel Messi weep. I couldnt duplicate it if my wife depended on it, but for one shining moment Im golden. Now Chapman stares like even hes thinking Im a plant.
When the flour settles, we leave scoring to the paying customers. Four gradeschoolers drawn by the spectacle, one girl casting a mercy vote my way and another splitting hers. God bless them. These are girls whod witness chipmunk vs. box truck and call it for the rodent. The boys arent as forgiving. Theyre siding with Siler.
It may be the one sport where its fine just being in it for the dough, but it never promises soft landings. Now I know how Chapman felt after that infamous New York City event, where Gemignani felt bad for the hungry youngster who was probably the worst there, offering the training videos and pat on the back to launch a championship career. Chapman lends a handshake and a smile.
Maybe theres hope for me yet, but not tonight. My pie in the sky still has a long way to go.
On Your Marks Scoreboard
Competition: Pizza dough throwing champion Siler Chapman of Indian Land
Contest: Acrobatic dough tossing at a Rock Hill pizzeria, with customers deciding the winner
Score: Of four total votes, one went my way and two toward Chapman, with one voter splitting. Final score: Chapman 2.5, Marks 1.5
Overall Record: Local talent 396.72, Marks 220.4.
On Your Marks is a monthly column where reporter John Marks takes on competition from the greater Lake Wylie and Fort Mill areas, challenging them in their field of expertise and profiling what makes them special. Check out past On Your Marks columns at lakewyliepilot.com. For ideas on who you think Marks should challenge next, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.