News & Politics

My First Time . . . Competing in a Hot-Dog Eating Contest

Sonya Thomas shares her tale of a career first.

Photograph courtesy Sonya Thomas.

As told to Sophie Gilbert.

I was watching TV in 2002, and they showed a hot-dog competition on the national news. A Japanese guy ate 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes. I thought, they have eating contests? And then I thought, 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes? It’s a lot.

I always liked competing, and I knew I could eat a lot—more than normal people. I searched on the Internet and saw that people had records for eating all kinds of foods—some which I liked to eat—so I thought maybe I could challenge them.

On June 26, 2003, there was a qualifying round for the Nathan’s Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest on Coney Island, with qualifying competitions across the country. I registered for one in New Jersey.

I didn’t want to look stupid—to drive all the way there for nothing—because only the winner would be invited to the big competition on Coney Island. Second place, third place didn’t get to go.

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So I had to win. But I didn’t know how many hot dogs I could eat in 12 minutes. I tried to eat one to see how long it would take, and I couldn’t finish it in one minute. I gave up and decided not to compete.

But then I kept thinking and thinking about it, and I couldn’t stop. A couple months later, I said that if a lot of people can do it, why can’t I? I went to get more hot dogs, and I finished two in one minute. I multiplied two by 12 and thought if I could eat 24 in that time, maybe I could do well. I didn’t know that people in competitions dipped the hot dogs in water to eat them faster, so I just ate them normally, bite by bite.

I went to the competition in New Jersey, and I was brand-new—just one girl with all the guys. And all the guys had been competing for a while. They thought the girl was coming just to enjoy hot dogs. Then I ate 18 hot dogs in 12 minutes and won. I was so happy, so proud of myself. I thought, look out, this world is mine. That feeling is why I compete.

Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas is a top-ranked competitive eater. Earlier this year, she became the first champion of the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest for Women. She lives in Alexandria.

This article appears in the November 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.