A headline about speed eater Sonya Thomas in the Nov. 17 Montgomery Extra incorrectly stated the number of world records she has set. She has 23 records. (Published 11/24/05)
In a corner of a Bethesda restaurant, a long table is set with a white tablecloth, ready for lunch. But there will be no fancy dining this Saturday afternoon.
Amid loud whoops and even louder music, the eaters are introduced. There is Don "Moses" Lerman, who once consumed seven sticks of butter in five minutes. There is a burly 57-year-old man with a big stomach known as "the Cal Ripken of the Calorie" and a 6-foot-6, 325-pound football coach whose nickname is "Yellowcake Subich," possibly because he loves corn bread.
The loudest cheers, though, are reserved for a tiny woman with arms like twigs and no apparent stomach. "Sonya! Sonya!" onlookers chant. One holds up a sign: "Sonya for President." Another wears a T-shirt: "Sonya, if you marry me, you can have all the food you want."
The object of this adulation, Sonya Thomas, sits at the table in front of a giant tray of greasy buffalo wings, licks her fingers, rocks back and forth and then, when the crowd counts down from 10, begins what she calls the "rip and strip.'' Her jaws in constant motion, she dives into the wings, turning each one over and over, tearing meat from bone with her teeth, shoveling a wing down her throat every four to five seconds. She rarely looks up.
Within 10 minutes, the 98-pound Thomas has consumed 5.75 pounds of meat, more than 150 wings in all.
In the end, when all the men have been beaten, some appearing ready to vomit, Thomas smiles for the cameras, waves at her fans and holds up a $1,500 check indicating that she has, indeed, won the Verizon VoiceWing Buffalo Wing Eating Battle.
Then she heads out for a salad.
It was just another day at the restaurant, so to speak, for the 38-year-old resident of the Alexandria section of Fairfax who is the top-ranked U.S. speed eater. Thomas, who is known as the "black widow" (because, she says, she likes to "kill the men"), is increasingly dominating a fast-growing competitive eating circuit that is part sport, part entertainment and a lot of spectacle and hype.
Since she discovered her inner pig in 2003, Thomas has set 23 world records. Some of her personal favorites: 80 chicken nuggets in five minutes; 552 oysters in 10 minutes; 44 Maine lobsters in 12 minutes and 11 pounds of cheesecake in nine minutes.
"She's very good,'' says Lerman, 56, the butter-eating champion from Long Island, who wears a shirt that says "the fastest hands in competitive eating" and sports a silver chain with a French bulldog charm for luck.
"She's got speed, capacity and good technique," he said. "Internally, the stomach is the same size, whether you are 500 pounds or 120."
Mark Kantor, who studies the workings of the stomach for a living, is skeptical. "She's just so small. I wonder how she keeps it all down," said Kantor, an associate professor of nutrition and food science at the University of Maryland. "It wouldn't surprise me if she was bulimic. After the time limit has expired, she may just throw it all up."
Perhaps, Kantor added, Thomas's success can be explained by her having a more elastic stomach than most people and a strong sphincter between the stomach and esophagus helping to control the vomiting reflex.
Thomas insists that she keeps all of her food down and that she developed her stomach's seemingly limitless capacity primarily by drinking three 42-ounce diet Cokes every day during her shift managing the Burger King at Andrews Air Force Base. Many people think she purges, "but it's not the truth," Thomas said. "They don't understand how you can expand inside the stomach, how you can train.''
Richard Shea, president of the International Federation of Competitive Eating, said that when he saw Thomas at her first event, a hot-dog eating contest in New Jersey in 2003, he thought: " 'Oh, boy, this poor gal is going to get killed by all these guys.' But it wasn't the case. She just has this inherent ability."
It is a talent that Thomas didn't know she had while growing up in South Korea. She said she ate normal portions until she came to the United States in 1997 -- when she encountered Burger King. It was then that Thomas began eating what remains her regular once-daily meal: a large order of Burger King fries; 10 chicken tenders; a grilled-chicken sandwich (hold the mayo); and her three 42-ounce diet Cokes. When she's off work, she likes eating at seafood buffets, and she mostly snacks on fruit.
By 2003, Thomas had developed a different craving: She wanted a challenge. Watching the Coney Island hot dog contest on television, she thought: "I wanted to do something special. I wanted my face on TV. So I decided to try it.''
She entered a hot dog-eating contest in New Jersey. After several minutes, she had managed to eat only one. But then she noticed something: The other eaters were dunking their buns in water, making them easier to eat, and breaking the hot dogs in half. "I copied them," she says.
Seventeen hot dogs later, Thomas had won with a total of 18 down in 12 minutes. "I could feel my stomach expanding," she recalled.
A few days later at Coney Island, she raised that total to 25 dogs, and earlier this year, she downed 37 at the Coney Island competition, breaking the women's world record of 32 she had set in 2004.
Today, Thomas is a virtual conglomerate. She has earned more than $50,000 in prize money this year and has a Web site, www.sonyatheblackwidow.com. She also provides nuggets of wisdom for her fans, including this jab at her male opponents: "It's difficult for some male egos to accept defeat by a member of the opposite sex, especially a little one like me. It's a blow to their pride."
She is unsure how long she will continue eating competitively, but her dream is clear: She wants to open her own fast-food restaurant.