Chomping hot dogs to win prize

July 03, 2004|By Vera Eidelman | Vera Eidelman,SUN STAFF

The statement on the official Web site of the International Federation of Competitive Eating is dramatic, if slightly tongue-in-cheek.

"There is a century-old prophecy within the competitive eating community, dismissed by most, that foretells the rise of the `One Eater,' a woman who will electrify America's gurgitators and lead them to international victory once again," it reads.

Century-old or not, that prophecy seems to have come true in the form of 36-year-old, 105-pound, Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas. In the year that she has been competing in eating contests, the Alexandria, Va., resident has managed to set 15 world records and win more than $30,000.

Tomorrow, she takes part in perhaps the most famous eating contest around, the annual Nathan's Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island, N.Y. There she'll go head-to-head with world-famous gurgitators like defending champ Takeru Kobayashi of Japan and several others. They will vie for the "Mustard Yellow Belt," a year's supply of hot dogs, and, of course, worldwide fame. The competition will be broadcast live on sports network ESPN beginning at noon.

Speaking by phone from federation headquarters in Manhattan, Thomas sounds ready.

"I'm just thinking about winning," says the Black Widow (who's actually single). "Nothing else."

When she arrived in America from South Korea nine years ago, Thomas had no inkling that competitive "gurgitating" was in her future. It wasn't until a year ago, when she saw news of the annual hot dog-eating contest on television, that she decided to even try. It turned out she was a natural.

"I don't get so full, I can handle a lot of food. That's why I wanted to try," she explains.

So, in her own words, last year she "just did it"; at the competition's New Jersey Turnpike qualifying round, she ate 18 hot dogs (weiners and buns) in 12 minutes, then swallowed a women's record 25 at the finals to instantly rank among the world's top eating competitors.

There was no training, at least nothing formal. "One time, I tried to see how many hot dogs I could eat in one minute," she recalls, but it didn't go too well.

But somehow, she knew she had the ability.

"I'm very competitive - in all sports. I'm very active; I play basketball, volleyball, table tennis. I'm really good, but not the best. I try so hard but I can't win. With eating contests, it's different."

Indeed it is. In her year of competing, Thomas has set records inhaling such varied foodstuffs as deep-fried asparagus, fruitcake, boiled eggs and jambalaya. In qualifying for this year's hot dog contest, she ate 26 1/2 dogs.

Thomas knows some people don't see eating competitions as positive, that some see it as mere gluttony. She sees it differently. "Eating contests aren't every day," she explains. "Fat people eat like that every day and eat junk or heavy food all the time."

She, on the other hand, uses a treadmill four or five times a week for 90 minutes at a time. And when she's working her 10 hours a day as a manager at the Andrews Air Force Base Burger King, she "always moves," she says.

"Even at work," she says, "I want to be the best." And so, she doesn't take a lunch break. Instead, she eats just one big meal a day: three king-size diet cokes, one king-size order of fries, one Chicken Whopper without mayonnaise, and two five-piece orders of chicken tenders.

"People think, `Oh my God, she looks like a little girl, how can she beat me?' But woman, man - it doesn't matter, there's no separation."

So what does matter in eating contests? "Your mind," she says.

For the competitive eating world, tomorrow's contest "is like the Super Bowl," Thomas says. "It's so hard to eat 40 or 50 hot dogs. I'm going to try. It's hard to beat [Kobayashi]. But I will try."

Yes, the prizes are good, she says. And yes, it's nice to feel like a celebrity. But, really, it's the winning that matters.

"I have to be the best," she says. "I don't like to lose. Winning is a pleasure."

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