The crowd roars when the countdown reaches zero and the contestants are off – but this isn’t your average sprint. This is competitive eating.
Instead of running to the finish, the competitors are stuffing their faces, grabbing a hot dog in one hand and its bun in the other, shoving the hot dog into their mouths while they dip the bun into water, ball it up and stuff it down. They eat in a fury as they try to consume more than everyone else at the table to the sounds of cheering and chanting.
Competitive eating is not for the faint of heart or stomach and Molly Schuyler is anything but timid – especially when it comes to food.
During her five-and-a-half-year career in competitive eating, the 120-pound mother of four has consumed 119 dumplings in two minutes, 440 wings in 30 minutes, and in just 20 minutes she ate three 72-ounce steaks (along with three baked potatoes, three side salads, three rolls and three shrimp cocktails).
This is what Molly, 37, does for a living. She goes from contest to contest, eating massive amounts of food faster than anyone else. Her salary is the prize money, which can range anywhere from $200 to $22,000 per contest.
Just last Sunday, Molly beat the record for most dumplings eaten in two minutes at the Chef One Dumpling Eating Contest in Brooklyn, when she scarfed down 119 dumplings. She beat that record just one day after she ate 10.5 Philly Cheesesteaks in 10 minutes at the Philly’s Cheesesteak & Food Fest on September 23 and won that as well. For these feats – for which she does no preparation – she earned $3,000.
Molly Schuyler, 37, from Sacramento, California, is a mother of four who is an independent competitive eater to make her living. She weighs 120 pounds and is considered by some to be one of the best competitive eaters in the world. She is pictured with young fans at the Tulare County Fair in California
Sarah Reinecke, 30, (pictured) from Seattle, Washington, is also a female competitive eater. She is signed with Major League Eating, one of the main professional eating leagues
Sophia DeVita, 22, (pictured), from Chicago, Illinois, is also signed with MLE, which runs the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Competition on Coney Island on July 4th every year
It turns out that for a mother of four who needed flexible working hours, traveling around the country to eat competitively is the perfect fit for Molly, who lives in Sacramento, California.
You may not think of her as an athlete, but she is one of the best in the tiny community of competitive eaters, where women make up an even smaller percentage.
Among competitive eaters, there are those who have signed with a professional league and those who are independent, but according to one female competitive eater, everyone is, endearingly, a ‘freakin’ weirdo’.
‘You have to be a little bit weird to do it,’ Sarah Reinecke, 30, tells DailyMail.com. ‘I have loved every single person I’ve met and they’re from all walks of life. People with PhDs, we’ve got therapists and accountants. There’s no archetype for what a competitive eater is.’
The community is so small that Sarah knows Molly personally, even though Sarah is in a league and Molly is an independent eater, not signed with anyone.
‘In my opinion, the best female eater in the world and to be honest, she’s probably one of the best eaters period, is Molly Schuyler,’ Sarah says. ‘She’s not with Major League Eating. If she were, she would just slaughter the majority of folks. She just travels around and does challenges and makes money. That’s what she does. And she’s incredible at it.’
To make her living, Molly goes from contest to contest to compete for the prize money, which can range anywhere from $200 to $22,000 per contest
Molly is pictured at the Tulare County Fair corn dog eating contest in California, where she won first place in September
At the Tulare County Fair corn dog eating contest, Molly won first place by eating 26 corn dogs in eight minutes. Her prize was $500
Molly has eaten some of the spiciest and biggest amounts of food, but also the weirdest. She once ate 5.5 pounds of pig brains in record time in 2014 for a zombie crawl on Coney Island (though she admits she’d have to be paid a lot of money to do it again)
While Molly ate 26 corn dogs in just eight minutes, the man who won second place, Sergio Reyes Raya (right), ate only 10 in the same time at the Tulare County Fair in September
Molly is fearless in the face of food. She’s stuffed down the spiciest burritos and the biggest pizzas and she’s even eaten 5.5 pounds of pig brains in record time during a zombie crawl on Coney Island in 2014 (though she admits she’d have to be paid a lot of money to do it again).
Even with all her feats and fearlessness, she is slowed down by only one thing: oysters.
‘I tried to eat my first oyster last year and it took me two minutes to eat one,’ Molly says. ‘I almost threw up on myself. I was like, I am not ever doing – gah, no way. No way.’
Besides that and other ‘slimy’ foods, Molly will eat just about anything. And she’s never vomited once, though the food does take its toll on her in other ways.
‘You really are shocking your system with what you’re doing and you’re intaking a lot of stuff which you should not be taking,’ she says.
Despite the shock to the system, many of the best competitive eaters tend to be thinner or fit.
Sarah works full time for a tech company and when she’s not working or competitive eating, she is a personal trainer, has her own fitness and nutrition business and she’s a bodybuilder
Sarah Reinecke signed with MLE last year so she could compete in the annual Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating contest on Coney Island. She is pictured at a qualifier contest in Portland, Oregon, for the 2018 competition
Sarah says: ‘Competitive eating, when you really get down to it, is not that different [than bodybuilding]. It’s about pushing your body to levels it does not want to go to, it’s about quieting your mind, when your body is screaming at you to stop’
Sarah, from Seattle, Washington, works full time for a tech company, comScore, Inc. When she’s not at work or competitive eating, she is a personal trainer, has her own fitness and nutrition business and she’s a bodybuilder.
In her off season, she weighs about 145 pounds, but when she’s cutting weight for bodybuilding competitions, she drops to about 120 pounds by following a strict diet of lean proteins and veggies.
‘Competitive eating, when you really get down to it, is not that different [from bodybuilding]. It’s about pushing your body to levels it does not want to go to. It’s about quieting your mind, when your body is screaming at you to stop.
‘It hurts and you have to kind of push yourself past that and keep going. So that aspect of it is exactly what I train my body to do in a different way, obviously, but on any given day. Also, on the inside, I’m a big fat girl and I freakin’ love food. I love food. It makes me so happy. It just, it brings me so much joy.
‘I’ve always been a big eater and not like a big eater for a girl or even a big eater for an average person,’ she adds. ‘I’ve been a big eater for a 900-pound person, a trucker who is named Bubba or something like that. That’s how I eat.’
Sarah is ranked 36th on MLE’s Top 50 ranking but out of the 13 women on the list, she is in ninth place
She weighs about 145 pounds in her off season when she’s not training for bodybuilding competitions, when she drops to about 120 pounds
Sarah is ranked 36 on MLE’s Top 50 ranking. Out of 13 women on the list, Sarah is in ninth place. She is signed with MLE, the main competitive eating organization that runs the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Competition on Coney Island on July 4th every year.
She signed last year after qualifying for the ‘Super Bowl’ of competitive eating and quickly fell in love with the professional sport.
‘I’m 100 per cent addicted,’ she says. ‘It’s the craziest, silliest, most amazing sport of all time… I never thought if I was going to be a professional athlete, it would be for eating.’
What’s also crazy to her is that she has fans like any other professional athlete. According to the Nathan’s website, almost 40,000 people come out to Coney Island to watch the July 4th contest, which is broadcast to almost two million viewers on ESPN.
Eaters even have their own individual fans, people who attend every contest to cheer them on and who follow them on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. Some competitive eaters have Facebook pages, YouTube channels and websites where fans can keep up with all their latest competitions and accomplishments.
‘There are fans everywhere, which is ridiculous,’ Sarah says. ‘I’m amazed that after contests I sign autographs.
‘Every competition I do, I almost always sign autographs for little girls which is crazy to me. But I sign shirts and I take pictures with people and again, it’s so strange to me that somebody would want my autograph because I binge-ate a ton of hot dogs,’ she laughs, adding: ‘People love competitive eating.’
Sophia DeVita is an accountant and runs a YouTube channel for health and fitness, where she also sometimes posts videos of her competitions, like this qualifier contest at the Iowa State Fair in August for the 2018 Nathan’s competition. She ate 19 hot dogs
Sophia, who lifts, runs, bicycles and played soccer in college says about competitive eating: ‘[Competitions are] fun for probably the first quarter of the challenge, and then it’s no longer fun.. But it is an accomplishment when, or if, you finish it’
Sophia DeVita, 22, is an accountant in Chicago, Illinois, and runs a YouTube channel for health and fitness, which also includes videos of her during competitions and doing different food challenges. She also signed with MLE last year.
‘[Competitions are] fun for probably the first quarter of the challenge, and then it’s no longer fun,’ Sophia says. ‘But it is an accomplishment when, or if, you finish it.’
According to legend, competitive eating as a great American pastime started on July 4, 1916, when four immigrants held a contest at the first Nathan’s hot dog stand on Coney Island. Whether true or not, there are records of contest winners since 1972 when winner Jason Schechter ate just 14 hot dogs.
Though earlier records don’t show how many people competed, by 2002 there were only three competitors, with winner Takeru Kobayashi eating 50 hot dogs. Eventually more people started competing and in 2011, Nathan’s split the competition into two, one for men and one for women. That year, Joey Chestnut ate 62 hot dogs and Sonya Thomas ate 40.
This year, Chestnut ate 72 hot dogs (though his all-time record is 73.5) and Miki Sudo ate 41 in just 10 minutes.
Sophia is ranked 24 on the MLE’s Top 50 list and ranked five among the women. To prepare for competitions, she starts to eat larger volumes of lower calorie vegetables to stretch her stomach. She is pictured with the long-standing hot dog eating champion Joey Chestnut who ate 72 hot dogs in just 10 minutes at the 2017 July 4th competition
Sophia’s YouTube channel is based on health and fitness, though she sometimes films herself doing food challenges, like eating this 5,000 calorie dessert pizza in just one sitting
So how does a person put away so much food? Each eater has their own technique. During competitions themselves, many dip their food in water and sip water in between bites. Some even wiggle their bodies while stuffing their faces to help move the food down faster.
For most, what it comes down to is training their stomachs to expand by drinking large amounts of water or eating large amounts of fibrous food in short amounts of time.
‘Normally, what most eaters will do is, they’ll do water training several times a week, which is, you’re chugging a gallon to two gallons to upwards of two gallons… every day in the shortest amount of time possible – I think under five minutes – to stretch your stomach. And you do that a couple times a week,’ Sarah says.
I never thought if I was going to be a professional athlete, it would be for eating – Sarah Reinecke
‘That is super uncomfortable, but it gets the job done. And then trying to make sure that your body is, again, functioning at a really happy, healthy level. So, you know, just like you would before a race. You want to make sure that you’re sleeping plenty and that your digestion is on point. So don’t eat a bunch of popcorn or things that just don’t do your body any favors in the digestive system,’ she laughs.
‘Then I usually, depending on what the food is, I will try and do a couple practice runs at the house beforehand… So that way I kind of get an idea of how to eat the food, because every food is a little bit different.’
But hot dogs, according to Sarah, are the worst.
‘They’re freakin’ hard to eat and to put down. They’re not a technique food like wings,’ she laughs.
To prepare for bodybuilding competitions, Sarah keeps a strict diet of lean proteins and vegetables so she loses weight, but maintains muscle mass
To prepare for eating contests, Sarah will drink up to two gallons of water in under five minutes for water training and will occasionally do practice runs to get a sense of how best to eat the food she’s competing with
Though Sophia only attends a few eating competitions a year, she is ranked 24 in the MLE’s Top 50 and ranked five among the women. Her preparation also involves stretching out her stomach.
‘Personally, I usually will start eating larger volumes of food daily,’ she says. ‘Mostly lower calorie vegetables and stuff all in a sitting, just so you will be able to stretch your stomach as well as not be totally over eating when you have a contest in a month or so. And then you’ll drink water on top of that.’
COMPETITIVE EATING: HOT DOGS VS WINGS
According to female competitive eater Sarah Reinecke, wings are easier to eat than hot dogs.
‘While wings technically are more tricky to eat, hot dogs are more filling from the start,’ Sarah says.
‘The incredibly high fat content, paired with the water soaked bread means a greasy and full tummy within the first four minutes or so.
‘While wings can be greasy, generally they are less so than hot dogs and no bread means more space for more meat.
‘Hot dogs are a perfect storm of space filling carbohydrates and tummy churning fat.’
Molly, on the other hand, barely prepares at all. She might drink more water to stretch out her stomach, but with four kids aged nine, 10, 11 and 14, she hardly has time to do practice runs. But she does have to be strategic about which competitions she attends since competitive eating is how she makes her money.
‘A lot of us will communicate [and ask each other] “hey, are you going to this contest?”
”Cause if there’s only one big prize, we’re not all going to show up,’ Molly says. ‘If we know who’s most likely going to win, you’re going to waste your travel time. We really do work closely together.’
Sarah even met her boyfriend through competitive eating. After she won a qualifier ahead of the Nathan’s championship, Juan Rodriguez, 34, from Chicago, who is ranked 12 on the MLE Top 50 list, reached out to her to congratulate her on the win.
‘He kind of is a social butterfly, so he reaches out to everybody,’ Sarah says. As it turns out, Juan is also a personal trainer and is just as interested in fitness as Sarah is.
‘We just talked training for months about how to prep and what’s going on in the world of competitive eating,’ she says. ‘We kind of had an instant friendship connection… We’re very similar people in that, again, there are not a ton of competitive eaters and there are even less competitive eaters who are also personal trainers.’
When they finally met in person at the championship at Coney Island in July, they immediately hit it off.
‘It was just – oh yeah, you. I’ve been waiting for you. You’re the right weirdo,’ Sarah says, laughing.
Sarah met her boyfriend, Juan Rodriguez, 34, through competitive eating. He is from Chicago, Illinois and is ranked 12 on the MLE Top 50 list. After Sarah won a qualifier, he reached out to her to congratulate her and they talked for the months leading up to the Coney Island competition
When Sarah and Juan finally met in person at Coney Island, they immediately hit it off and soon started dating. Sarah is pictured at a qualifier for the 2018 competition
Though Sarah loves the competitive eating community, she does wish more women would compete. She says: ‘I would love to see more girls and that’s not great for me because I’m sure there are ladies out there that could whoop my ass who are not competing currently and could boot me down off the top 50 list of Major League Eating. There are more women that can do this. I know there are’
But it isn’t only Juan that drew Sarah into the competitive eating community.
‘You have to be a little bit weird to do it and so when you meet other people who kind of have that same, strange mindset, it’s like oh my god, you’re me. I know you,’ she laughs.
‘They’re incredible. Some of the just weirdest, strangest, most amazing folks, all of different walks of life flock to competitive eating and I mean, I can’t imagine now, not having those people in my life.’
She only wishes there were more women who ate competitively.
‘There are not very many women who do this,’ Sarah says. ‘And I don’t think it is because women can eat less than men at all. I think largely it is because there is very much a stigma, especially associated with weight and weight gain around women who eat a ton of food and for that reason it doesn’t attract very many women.
‘So what I would love to see is more ladies show up. I would love to see more girls and that’s not great for me because I’m sure there are ladies out there that could whoop my ass who are not competing currently and could boot me down off the top 50 list of Major League Eating. There are more women that can do this. I know there are.’