Monday, July 26, 2004

Their feat is to eat

'Swellin' with Melon' contest feeds Americans' growing appetite for competitive chow-downs

By Chuck Martin
Enquirer staff writer

Competitors vie for $1,000 and the title of World Watermelon Eating Champion during "Swellin; With Melon" at the Brookville Community Picnic.
(The Enquirer/Sarah Conard)
The setting was perfect: Fluffy white clouds dancing through clear blue skies, the twang of country music mingling with the smell of grilling pork and frying pastries. What a day to decide the world watermelon eating championship.

Hundreds came to watch the first "Swellin' with Melon" contest Saturday at the annual Brookville Community Picnic, just off I-70 between Dayton and Richmond, Ind. A dozen local big eaters showed to take a bite at the $1,000 cash prize, including 24 year-old Misty McCauley of Brookville.

"I won one of these contests when I was 8 or 9," says McCauley, who graduated from Miami University in May. "It's a good prize, so I might as well try it."

But she and the other amateur eaters didn't stand a chance. Four professional "gurgitators" from the national competitive eating circuit also came to gobble melon: "Beautiful" Brian Seiken from Brooklyn, N.Y.; "Big Brian" Subich of Johnstown, Penn.; and Rich "The Locust" LeFevre and his wife, Carlene, from Henderson, Nev. The LeFevres are known and feared as the "First Couple" of competitive eating.

She's ranked ninth in the world; her husband, fresh off his world rib championship in Chinook, Ore., is ranked fifth.

"All you can do is your best," says Rich LeFevre, a 60-year-old, 5-foot-6, 145-pound accountant, who once ate 11/2 gallons of chili in 10 minutes. "You don't want to disappoint yourself. And I'll be disappointed if I eat less than 10 pounds."

His diminutive size - LeFevre looks to be the literal underdog - and fierce competitive spirit help feed a growing appetite for what some call a new sport: Eating as much as you can, as fast as you can.

The LeFevres and the other pros belong to the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE), a New York-based organization founded by public relations executive Richard Shea and his brother George, in 1997.

Television takes note

The IFOCE sanctioned the Nathan's Famous Fourth of July Hot Dog Contest in New York, which was televised live by ESPN for the first time this year. No. 1-ranked Japanese superstar Takeru Kobayashi, who weighs 132 pounds, won by swallowing 501/2 hot dogs in 12 minutes, a world record.

Competitive eating records from the International Federation of Competitive Eating
501/2 Nathan's hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes: Takeru Kobayashi, Nagano, Japan

11 pounds of cheesecake in 9 minutes: Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas, Alexandria, Va.

331/2 ears sweet corn in 12 minutes: Ed "Cookie" Jarvis, Nesconsett, N.Y.

49 glazed doughnuts in 8 minutes: Eric "Badlands" Booker, Copaigue, N.Y.

6 pounds Spam in 12 minutes: Rich "The Locust" LeFevre, Henderson, Nev.

The IFOCE will sanction 70 competitive eating events in the U.S. and Europe this year, says George Shea, and it expects to sanction more than 100 next year. Although Kobayashi reportedly earned close to $150,000 his first year of competition in Japan, few American contests award large prizes. But that's beginning to change, says Shea, as more companies realize the publicity potential.

"This is not a gross-out for 14 year-olds," says Shea of his sport's belly-swelling popularity. "Nor is it a cutesy pie-eating contest. It's a kind of cultural sporting event."

Margo Cantrellof the Brookville Chamber of Commerce and the Shea brothers cooked up the watermelon contest, a natural eating event for July in rural western Ohio. It's the first watermelon-eating contest sanctioned by the IFOCE, which means a world record would be established.

For the contest, the IFOCE sent Ryan Nerz to oversee registration and the melon weighing. Nerz also serves as on-stage color analyst during the competition, urging the crowd to shout "Eat, Eat, Eat!" with a microphone.

Preparation is key for some

But hundreds of screaming spectators don't faze the pros.

"You just focus on the food in front of you," says up-and-coming rookie Brian Subich, a 6-foot-6-inch, 315-pound former offensive lineman and assistant high school football coach. "It's a lot like getting ready for a game."

To train for competitive eating, Subich "speed chews" gum to build jaw strength and eats large meals to expand his stomach. The night before the watermelon contest, Subich ate three pounds of pasta.

Other competitive eaters frequent restaurant buffets and eat massive amounts of cooked cabbage to enlarge their stomachs, while some practice by guzzling gallons of water.

Many, including the LeFevres, claim not to train at all. Between contests, the couple eat healthful food in moderate amounts, and exercise to maintain their weight.

This makes their uncanny ability to turn on their voracious appetites more incredible. Friday, the day before the Brookville contest, the LeFevres drove to Indianapolis to accept a restaurant's challenge to eat a 7-pound hamburger in less than 30 minutes. Despite the burger being "horribly overcooked," Rich ate it in 23 minutes and his wife finished her enormous sandwich five minutes later. They earned $100 each for the feat.

"That's not the kind of thing we usually like to do before a big contest," Rich says.

Small bodies; mighty mouths

It's the triumph of small-framed eaters - like the LeFevres and Kobayashi - over 409-pound Ed "Cookie" Jarvis of Nesconsett, N.Y., and other hulking competitors that makes the contests most compelling. Some on the circuit subscribe to the "Belt of Fat" theory: The more fat around your midsection means less room for your stomach to expand.

Rookie Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas of Arlington, Va., would seem to legitimize the theory. At a petite 105 pounds, Thomas has eaten 11 pounds of cheesecake in nine minutes, and beat heavyweight Jarvis by consuming 167 chicken wings in 32 minutes.

"She's a gold mine," says competitor Brian Seiken. "She has the fastest hands and the amount of food she can consume is amazing."

George Shea predicts the Black Widow's good looks and incredible eating ability will lead to more televised competitions and reality television shows.

The Nathan's hot dog contest reached a respectable 800,000 households, and the network is considering airing more eating events, says ESPN strategic program planner Jason Bernstein.

"I think it's a sport," says Bernstein. "You have to go back to its competitive core. In a way, it's something we all do."

And the winner is ...

Although everyone eats, not everyone eats like Rich LeFevre, who consumes watermelon by holding hunks close to his mouth and gnawing them like a rabid chipmunk.

At the 11-minute mark, contest officials bring out a second 15-pound pan of melon to LeFevre. With two minutes left, he seems to taunt other contestants by tipping the pan to drink the melon juice.

When time has elapsed, there's little doubt who has won. After all the melon remnants are weighed (the melon is weighed before and after the contest), it's official: Rich LeFevre wins by eating an astonishing 11.2 pounds of watermelon. His wife places second at 9.7 pounds, and Brian Seiken finishes third with 8 pounds.

The top local contestant is Mark Schumacher of Dayton at 6.7 pounds. Several novice speed eaters dropped out of the contest, including two who threw up (vomiting is an automatic IFOCE disqualification).

To learn more
•For world International Federation of Competitive Eating rankings and to learn how to become a competitive eater or to hold a sanctioned event:

•For news and gossip from the competitive eating circuit:

"I don't think I'm going to puke, but I'm close," says a pale McCauley, who finished by eating 31/2 pounds of melon.

The LeFevres, who figured they earned $400 above their travel expenses, were full but not close to being ill.

"I feel fine," says Rich, who admitted letting up at little at the end of the contest because he knew he was ahead.

The LeFevres leave to walk off their load of watermelon, while inside a tent, the other two pros - Seiken and Subich (who finished fourth with 7.5 pounds of melon) - share a rack of ribs and huge portion of pulled pork.

"We do this all the time," Subich says with a grin.


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