After many of her coworkers have punched out, McKenna Carney, a 20-year-old assistant manager at The Nona Slice House in Safety Harbor, Florida, stays behind at the restaurant with a small group of fellow pizza chefs. They’re not there to drink shift beers or eat pizzas that never got picked up—they’re there to hone their craft: pizza acrobatics.
Last week, Carney’s hard work paid off, as she earned first place in pizza acrobatics in the U.S. Pizza Team (USPT) Acrobatics Finals, held at the Pizza Tomorrow Summit in Orlando. The victory earned her a trip to Parma, Italy, to compete in the Pizza World Championship next April.
Carney and her coworkers learned from one of the best pizza acrobats to ever sling dough: Jamie Culliton, owner of The Nona Slice House, member of the U.S. Pizza Team and four-time world pizza acrobatics champion. Culliton dedicates a lot of his time to training the latest crop of rising stars on the USPT. It’s safe to say he’s witnessed few people as naturally talented as Carney, however.
“Some people take to [pizza acrobatics] really quickly, whereas others take a lot of training,” Culliton said. “But she’s a real natural athlete. She was a softball player all her life, so we saw something in her, and, on top of that, she just works her butt off.”
At the Pizza Tomorrow Summit, Carney’s athleticism was on full display as she executed her refined pizza-acrobatics routine to the tune of “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” by Beyonce. It wasn’t the first time she had performed to a Beyonce song and it may not be the last either.
“I’ve been doing a theme of popular girl artists,” Carney said of the music selections for her dough-throwing routines. Alhough last week was Carney’s first win, she took home third place at the International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas. She’s also competed in smaller regional events over the past couple of years. “Beyonce goes along with the theme I want for myself,” she said. “I also want to pick a song that a lot of people will recognize so it gets the audience hyped.”
Carney’s routine was about as flawless as they come. She mixed traditional dough-throwing moves with some of her own signature ones. Though she was just the second contestant of the day, it was clear she’d set a high bar—the judges agreed, and none of the remaining contestants matched her score.
The ease with which Carney went about her business belied the nerves she faced before competing. “I get super nervous,” Carney said. “I feel like the world is ending. But when you get up on stage, with the first toss, you’re like, ‘Oh, this is what I’ve been practicing for months now. I know what I’m doing, actually.’”
Culliton chalks those nerves up to Carney’s enduring competitive spirit. “She puts a lot of pressure on herself,” he said. “Again, it goes back to her being a natural athlete and a competitor. It’s just something in her that wants to do well and have a good showing and, frankly, win. She’s a winner, and she’s driven by that desire to win.”
As for Culliton, his mentoring of Carney and others is the next chapter in his storied pizza career. It’s been a while now since Culliton has competed in events. He said he’s intentionally stepped back to focus on helping other pizza acrobats see how far they can push the limits of the sport.
“People say, why don’t you want to do it?” Culliton said. “I’ve already competed 1,000 times. It’s time to pass the torch and teach people how fun it is to get out there and compete.”
After finishing her routine last week, Carney recalled the first time she saw Culliton in the kitchen practicing his dough-throwing routine. “What in the world is that?” she asked him. “And he told us, ‘Yeah, this is called pizza acrobatics. There are expos for this, you can travel the world for this.’
“And now a bunch of us do it,” Carney continued. “I’m gonna ride this wave and keep on doing this for as long as I can and keep having fun with it.”
Next stop for Carney? Parma, Italy, and a chance for a world title.