- The Washington Times - Friday, August 19, 2005

She stands 5-foot-5 and carries all of 99 pounds. She is a waif, a featherweight with spindly arms who looks like a fat-free delicacy next to her hefty competition.

Don’t be fooled by the frail frame, disarming smile, girlish giggle or — and especially not this — the shrunken stomach. Sonya Thomas can gnaw, gobble and gorge with the biggest and fastest eaters in the world.

The Alexandria resident is the top-ranked American on the international competitive eating circuit. The 38-year-old “gurgitator,” as professional eaters are called, broke her own world record last week by downing 11.3 pounds of lobster — the equivalent of 44 of the crustaceans — in 12 minutes at the World Lobster Eating Festival in Kennebunkport, Maine.

According to the International Federation of Competitive Eating — yes, such a thing exists — she holds 17 world records. Her grand gorges range from baked beans (8.4 pounds in 2 minutes, 47 seconds) to hard-boiled eggs (65 in 6:40), oysters (552, or 46 dozen, in 10 minutes) and cheesecake (11 pounds in nine minutes).

“I don’t get sick,” she said, although she admits that digesting more than 10 percent of her body weight in cheesecake can cause some problems. “Only sometimes from different kinds of food. Sometimes with hard food that hurts your mouth. Like popcorn really hurt my mouth. I couldn’t lift my tongue. My lips had blisters. It was horrible.”

In competition, Miss Thomas defeats men three and four times her size, top power gurgitators such as 420-pound Eric “Badlands” Booker and 407-pound Ed “Cookie” Jarvis.

This queen of consumption is one of the few females on the circuit, a fact that causes some resentment among the large, macho men she discards in competition like so many chicken bones.

The rules are simple: swallow as much as food as you can in the allotted time and keep the food down. A regurgitation — a “reversal of fortune” in the terminology of competitive eating — results in a distasteful disqualification.

“I have always done everything fast,” said Miss Thomas, who grew up in South Korea and moved to the United States 10 years ago. “That’s why I think I am good at competitive eating; it is fast eating, speed eating. It is part of my personality.”

Her fast metabolism was an untapped resource until she watched the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest on television July 4, 2002. Miss Thomas instantly got the bite bug.

“I wanted to be on TV,” she said. “That was my dream. I said, ‘I can do that, too.’ ”

She entered a qualifying event in New Jersey and won it by downing 17 hot dogs and buns. She finished fourth at Coney Island (25 hot dogs) in 2003 and earned the federation’s rookie of the year honors.

Before dismissing her as a fruitcake — she owns that world record, too — consider the financial intake from her, well, massive intakes.

Miss Thomas works full-time as a manager at a Burger King on Andrews Air Force Base. Her extracurricular eating habits put nearly $50,000 on her plate last year.

The blistered lips she suffered earned her a $10,000 prize at the MTV popcorn-eating contest in Los Angeles. She won a new car — and later sold it — by downing 167 chicken wings in 32 minutes to capture the 2004 Wing Bowl in Philadelphia.

“We went to double overtime, and I won,” she said of outlasting Mr. Jarvis. “That was the happiest time of my life.”

Though Miss Thomas is No. 1 in the United States, she ranks second in the world behind Takeru Kobayashi of Japan — always the prohibitive favorite in competitive eating’s most prestigious event, the Coney Island hot dog contest.

Mr. Kobayashi earns about $500,000 a year through competition and his cult celebrity status. Miss Thomas has designs of one day passing King Kobayashi, giving up her day job and becoming a full-time feaster.

“If they have prize money, I will do it,” she said. “I don’t like to eat strange food. But if they have a big prize, I don’t mind. It is all mental. Like cow brain, beef tongue or liver, I cannot eat that. But if they have a big prize …”

How does such a small woman — she bills herself as the “Black Widow” because she kills men in eating — cram it all in?

George Shea, who runs the federation, sees Miss Thomas as a triple threat: great hand-eye-mouth coordination, a lethal jaw and an accordionlike stomach.

“If you look at her cheeks and her jaw, she has an extraordinary mouth to go with that esophagus,” Mr. Shea said. “She seems to be a new breed of species — with a very large mouth. Look at the size of those cheeks; it is beautiful.”

Miss Thomas said she consulted her doctor and was told she will suffer no negative effects from competitive eating as long as she doesn’t do too many events. It normally takes her body about 12 hours to recover from an event and several days to process the large amounts of food she ingests.

She trains for events, usually eating as much of the food as she can in one-minute intervals. Miss Thomas works out for about 90 minutes a day on the treadmill and rarely stops moving when she is awake, spending her entire work day on her feet.

She says her best weapon is her deceptive belly, which leads her to favor longer events so she can outlast opponents with limited capacities.

“It expands,” she said. “If you don’t have a big stomach, you get sick. So you have to expand your stomach.”

When she’s at work at Burger King, she eats only one meal a day. This fast-food feast rarely varies: a chicken whopper (no mayo), two five-piece chicken nuggets, large french fries and a 42-ounce soda (diet, of course).

The training has paid off. In this summer’s Fourth of July competition at Coney Island, Miss Thomas packed away an American record of 37 hot dogs, five ahead of her old mark. However, she finished second to Mr. Kobayashi, who sank 49 franks.

Miss Thomas recently finished second in the U.S. Open of Competitive Eating, which took place in Las Vegas and was broadcast on ESPN. The event featured 32 gurgitators in a March Madness style-event nicknamed “Starch Madness.”

She plowed her way through the first five rounds of one-on-one matches but had to settle for the second-place check of $5,000 after falling to her nemesis, Mr. Kobayashi, in the title round of appetizers.

“I am not satisfied,” she said. “Even though my stomach is expanded, it is not big enough to beat Kobayashi. So I am not happy. I can go faster.”

In other words, Miss Thomas is still hungry.

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