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Pizza twirler finds that winging it pays off at international competition in Las Vegas

Updated Thursday, March 21, 2013 | 10:21 a.m.

World Pizza Games Finals

Kazuya Akaogi, 30, of Japan competes in the acrobatic portion of the World Pizza Games, part of the International Pizza Expo, at the Las Vegas Convention Center Wednesday, March 14, 2012. Launch slideshow »

The crowd roared and whistled and the music from the speakers tore through the air at ear-splitting volumes.

Wednesday night it wasn’t a rock concert, or the latest Vegas sporting event. It was the World Pizza Championships, and the masses had gathered to watch the final three contestants compete in the freestyle finals, where entrants do a series of tricks with pizza dough.

As Nicholas Osborn waited for his turn on the stage, he paced back and forth, tapped his foot on the ground and smacked himself in the face to beat back the nervousness.

At maybe 5-feet-6 inches tall, and maybe 140 pounds, Osborn doesn’t tower over anyone. But after just six months of practicing his tricks, the red head stands tall, and Wednesday he had a chance to win gold.

He began his routine to the song “Thrift Shop,” a tune by Macklemore, twirling the dough on his fingers, playing the dough like some bizarre musical instrument. He threw it into the air, and caught it behind his back. Out on the stage, he has no plans, just improvisation.

“I’m a firm believer in winging it,” Osborn said.

He’s practiced with special dough designed for tricks that has twice as much salt and half as much olive oil. That’s to keep it strong for when he throws it over his head and catches it behind his back. The real stuff, the dough used for eating, is a different story.

“It’s more of a science than a creative art form,” he said. “You have to be extremely precise in your measurements and (oven) temperatures.”

The 24-year-old traveled from Tulsa, Okla., from his job at Andolini’s Pizzeria with his boss and the owner of the shop, Mike Bausch.

He owns two Andolini’s pizza shops and food trucks that sell the molten cheesy goodness.

“When you’re in the kitchen, you have your blinders on,” Bausch said. “This is a way to take them off.”

The three-day Pizza Expo at the Las Vegas Convention center attracts vendors and pizza chefs from around the country. It’s a convenient way for Bausch to find everyone he might do business with in one place. And it’s a good way for Bausch to expose some of his employees to different baking techniques.

You see, Osborn is obsessed with technique. He’s always been that way as a culinary student, and as an engineer in the navy.

First place was his goal. Of the 16 competitors, Osborn had beat out 13 of them, and victory was coming closer. He picked up the pace later into his routine with somersaults and other tricks that sent him running across the stage.

And when the song ended he was panting heavily as the five judges announced his scores in five categories, including difficulty level.

Ultimately, it wasn’t enough. One competitor was deemed slightly better, but after just six months of practicing, Osborn will take the second-place finish. He’ll remember the experience, though, when he’s making 300 pizza crusts a night. From this loss, he’ll only get better.

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