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Local hula hooper has high hopes of breaking a world record in Italy

Ladies and gentlemen, signore e signori, welcome to the showdown in Italy this week between two American giants of hula hooping.

In one corner, Andreas "Spilly, the hula hoop man" Spiliadis, 5-foot-7 and 150 pounds, a weekly fixture at the farmers' market in Waverly. He spends his Saturday mornings gyrating in a nearby median strip.

In the other corner, Paul "Dizzy Hips" Blair, 43, of Flagstaff, Ariz., 5-foot-9 and 150 pounds, holder of four world records and a competitor so fierce that the theme song on his website, http://www.dizzyhips.com, is The Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go?"

"If I go there will be trouble.

And if I stay it will be double …

So you gotta let me know

Should I stay or should I go?"

The producers of "Lo Show Dei Record," the Italian version of the Guinness Book of World Records TV show, are flying both men to Rome this week. There, they will compete to break the world record of 64 rotations, or "spins," of a 3.5-centimeter hula hoop in one minute.

The taped segment will be about 10 minutes long and is scheduled to air in September, though not in the U.S., said Philip Coticelli, researcher for Euro Produzione, the show's production company.

Who will break the record?

"I will," said Blair, 43.

"I believe I'm going to smash it pretty well," said the equally confident Spiliadis, 44, hooping and juggling on a recent cold Saturday morning.

Coticelli doesn't care who wins, as long as both men live up to their billing as two of America's finest in a sport its biggest fans call simply "hooping."

Many Italians might not discern much of a difference between Spiliadis and Blair, Coticelli said. They have few hula hoopers in their own country and may be seeing the sport for the first time.

"I have to look for foreign talent," he said. "It's (hula hooping) not that popular."

And the hoop they'll be using is so large, "It's not the normal hula hoop," he said. "It's something extraordinary."

Hoop-ortunity knocks

The all-expenses-paid trip, plus a payment of $1,500 and a chance to compete on an international stage and set a world record, is extraordinary enough for Spiliadis, a nationally obscure hooper. He lived for 15 years in Charles Village and two in Oakenshawe before moving to the Arcadia neighborhood in northeast Baltimore, where he lives in a fixer-upper next to a graveyard and calls himself "an urban farmer."

Spiliadis is also a freelance writer, a debate coach at Frederick Douglass High School, and a purveyor of hula hoops, some of which he sells to the crowds at the farmers' market.

He said his two daughters, Zoe, 16, and Tali, 14, got him into hula hooping at 39, when he couldn't rotate a hula hoop for more than 30 seconds.

As he got better at it, he sold hula hoops and started performing at the Charles Village Festival, Artscape and the Fluid Movement performing troupe's annual Hoop-a-thon.

About three years ago, he began performing, selling hoops and instructing passers-by in the wide median near a Waverly entrance sign on the 33rd Street side of the 32nd Street Farmers Market.

"This was really like a lemonade stand at first. But I made so much money selling hula hoops and had so much fun and the people seemed so into it."

Spiliadis reinvested his money in more hula hoops, and became a regular in the median, often standing on one of the brick beams that support the Waverly sign. Lately, he's been seen juggling while hooping, with a milk crate of rubber balls sitting alongside 60 hoops piled at the base of the sign.

"I learned to juggle this summer and I'm adding that to the repertoire," he said.

He estimates that hula hoop sales and activities now account for as much as half of his income.

Promoting himself on Facebook and websites such as hooping.org and sonofasuperhero.com, he caught the attention of "Lo Show Dei Record."

But so did a much bigger star, Blair, who has been a guest on ESPN, "America's Got Talent" and "The CBS Early Show," according to his action-packed website.

In an interview, Blair said he took up hooping at 18, and made a name for himself by hooping on stage at concerts by the band The String Cheese Incident.

A practitioner of "extreme" or "circus" hooping, the unabashed self-promoter shows videos on his site of him doing stunts, from hula hooping on roller skates to hooping with a tractor tire.

He also extols four world records he set, including for the highest number of standard-size hula hoops spun simultaneously, 132 in November, 2009.

Blair said his appearance on "Lo Show Dei Record" would be his second. He set two world records in 2010 on the same show, he said.

Blair complimented Spiliadis' skills.

"It's pretty apparent watching him that he's learned a lot from watching my videos," Blair said.

"They chose him for a reason."

Blair also believes that he and Spiliadis are kindred spirits because they are close in age, build, skill sets and passion for the sport.

Lowering expectations, Blair said he thinks Spiliadis is a little bigger than he is, although Blair is the taller of the two.

And Blair said he recently threw out his back doing a stunt.

"That'll make it interesting," he said.

The underdog

On recent Saturdays at the market, Spiliadis has been doing "long, Zen-like sessions here, working on my balance."

And he said he's been training to raise the number of spins he can do in a minute to break the record of 64.

"I'm getting upwards of 90," he said.

Urban farming, the practice of growing food in an urban setting, is a kind of training too, Spiliadis said.

"I feel that that's getting me more strong, in ways that (hooping) does not," he said.

Spiliadis knows his hooping resume is not as good as Blair's, and admits he's watched Blair's videos a lot.

But he's not worried about challenging the master.

"I'm definitely the underdog," he said. "But I like being in that position."

And Spiliadis said he looks forward to promoting a sport that isn't exactly a craze in Italy.

"It will be once we're done," he said.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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