By Lei Takanashi
After Fabrizio Milito rolled onstage in a Roman chariot, ready to perform on Chinese Central TV, the host of the show yelled that Milito’s opponent, Yixi Fong, would take off Milito’s “angel wings.”
Milito removed his robe, flapped his “wings,” and had his brother place a can on the “X” written on his back.
“Are you guys ready?” asked a game show attendant.
“Three, two, one. Go!”
Fifty-one soda cans. Milito had to crush more than 51 cans in one minute with his shoulder blades to beat Fong and retain his world record.
Fabrizio Milito is a senior chemistry student at Stony Brook University who currently holds the world record for the most soda cans crushed with the shoulder blades in one minute. Milito’s odd talent has given him the chance to go to China and Germany, and even to become a stuntman on the film “Noah.”
Milito is only 24, but he already has stories for his grandkids about the “wings” that have flown him around the world and opened his life to the odder side of the entertainment industry.
At a young age, Milito said, he knew he was blessed with unusually pronounced shoulder blades that protruded out of his back. His first memory of using his shoulder blades to crush cans was when he was in middle school at a cousin’s birthday party. Milito knew that his shoulders blades stuck out, so he attempted to crush a soda can between them. It worked.
Milito grew up in Bayville, Long Island, a small, aging beach town where the rich used to rent bungalows for the summer. These seasonal homes now house working- and middle-class families, 365 days a year. Milito described Bayville as “a conservative, like-minded community,” where everyone in the neighborhood was either a distant relative or a family friend. Milito’s parents were immigrants and were not connected to the community this way, and, Milito said, he felt like an outcast. He was often bullied.
“It is easy to pick on the kid that nobody knows,” Milito said.
Milito lived right next to Centre Island, an affluent part of Long Island filled with lavish mansions straight out of the “The Great Gatsby.” Milito grew up in eyeshot of these mansions. Surrounded by individuals who could take a private jet to Milan any day of the week, Milito’s family was more working class. His father, an Italian immigrant, is a carpenter and built his own business in Bayville. His mother worked two part-time jobs. For Milito, it was hard to relate to other kids in his neighborhood, like the kid who had a two-story family house for just his swimming pool.
“I didn’t have access to a lot of that, and that made a gap between me and the rest of the people I grew up around,” said Milito.
Yet being different is what brought Milito out of Bayville.
In 2011, Milito posted a one-minute video of himself crushing a soda can with his shoulder blades. The video gained little attention and only has 2,760 views today. But one year later, a representative from the reality TV show “Guinness World Records Gone Wild” found the video and thought Milito would make great TV. He offered Milito a chance to fly to California and to turn his grainy YouTube video into a world record featured on high-definition TV. Milito decided that it would be a chance to expand his horizons, and he flew out to California that summer.
Gaining recognition for a record is not easy. There are over 40,000 world records, but only 4,000 are published in the book, and 15,000 are featured on the Guinness website. Yet Guinness functions as a business and constantly scouts for new talent to put in its book or on its TV show, said Kristen Ott, the public relations manager of Guinness World Records. So even if Milito never intended on making his can-crushing ability into a world record, Guinness saw an opportunity.
After his appearance on Guinness’ American TV show, Guinness World Records of China asked Milito to perform on its show, which he has done twice in the past four years. Right after his first show in China, Milito was also flown to Germany for the European version.
He was getting paid to travel to places he would have never visited had it not been for his shoulder blades.
If anything, his unusual back has given him many stories to share. On his first visit to China, he faced not just the uncomfortably polluted air, but also racism, a new experience for him as a white person. On his visit to Berlin he met world record-holders who sliced watermelons with samurai swords and high-dived into kiddy pools. Milito said that it was interesting to see what entertained different cultures.
His second visit to China provided perhaps his most interesting story.
“It was a horrible experience,” Milito said. ”If they ever try to call me back, I need to set down a lot more ground rules.”
When Milito returned to China last December to face his competitor Yixi Fong a second time, the producers of the show gave him less than 30 minutes to practice, which was much less time than what he was promised. He also had very few cans to practice crushing and found that full cans were sneaked in to try to sabotage his performance.
Milito was not surprised, because the first time he came, he wasn’t even told he had a competitor until he got on the air.
Milito was nervous, he said, and had heard that Fong had dedicated a year of his life to studying Milito’s technique. But Fong could not compete. After crushing his 51st can, Fong’s back began to bleed. Chinese TV refused to show the bleeding on camera, and bandages would have given Fong extra padding and grip for the cans.
Fong had to stop at 51 cans. He threw a reality TV tantrum off camera. Milito beat his score with 63 cans.
So what drives Milito and other record holders?
“Once I found out that a guy was challenging my record, it wasn’t exactly about the competition, but I wanted to beat him for the sake of my record,” Milito said.
Although Milito said he never practiced for setting the record except for the last time he was in China, he plans on defending it again if he has to.
Others, such as the man with the most world records, Ashrita Furman of Queens, have a spiritual motivation. Furman became a follower of Sri Chimnoy, an Indian spiritual master who preached that feats of athleticism could lead to enlightenment. This is why Furman began to pursue world records. “It’s all about finding the inner strength that we all have,” Furman said in a phone interview.
Although Milito may not be on the same wavelength as Furman, he definitely showed his inner strength when he worked on the film “Noah”. Milito heard about “Noah” while filming for Guinness in California. Since the film was being shot in Oyster Bay, a couple of miles from Bayville, Milito decided to take another interesting opportunity.
His “wings” landed him his first gig as a stuntman.
Milito originally auditioned as a background actor but was selected and physically tested to see if he could handle being a stuntman. Milito, having experience in high school acting and playing fantasy games like “Magic the Gathering,” —and defending himself all throughout childhood—was a perfect fit. Milito looked liked he knew how to fight with a sword and shield and to act like he was being killed by stone golems, and he was fit enough to do the stunts.
For two months in the fall of 2012, Milito was going back and forth from Stony Brook to Oyster Bay to get into a 20-pound costume and perform in either 90-degree weather or simulated freezing rain for 12 or 13 hours at a time. Milito sprinted across jagged rock surfaces, leaped across moats and took a battering ram to his body. By the end of it all, he said, his body was a complete wreck, and he had to drop an important class, delaying his progress in school. But, he said, meeting the performers on a movie set was an experience that he would not trade.
“You get to meet a lot of different people, from those whackos that think they are going to make it big, to the people that are naturally talented that you know are going to make it. And average people that just happen to have extraordinary hobbies and skills,” Milito said.
Milito is still unsure about his plans for the future. After being at Stony Brook for six years, he is ready to leave, but he said he can’t imagine sitting at a computer for the rest of his life. He loves the hands-on discovery of science, but he does not see himself staying in a lab looking at data for months until he discovers something.
Milito said his motto is “be the change you want to see in the world” and has thought about teaching chemistry to inner-city kids or becoming a police officer. He likes acting, but views it more as a nice side gig, not a career.
When asked if he would pursue a career involving his world record, as many other world-record holders do, he said it was under consideration. But he is far more passionate about longboarding. He is president of the Stony Brook Longboarding Club and runs a small skate shop.
His venture into the entertainment industry may have run its course.
“In all honesty, I look back at it and say, ‘There is so much more I can do,’ and really, anybody could luck into this as well,” he said. It’s a nice conversation starter, “but after that, I’m like anybody else.”