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Saturday, April 19, 2008


College students compete for gastronomic glory

April 19, 2008
Tums, please.

The 12 men and one woman who stuffed as many french fries in their mouths as fast as humanly possible had, at times, that familiar look people get at the Thanksgiving table.

SCOTT LINNETT / Union-Tribune
Mesa College student Ryan McMillan plowed through a plate of french fries last night at RT's Longboard Grill in Pacific Beach to reach the finals of the first-ever Collegiate Nationals Eating Championship.

SCOTT LINNETT / Union-Tribune
Josh Ballard had to take a time out last night at RT's Longboard Grill after powering down french fries en route to the finals of the Collegiate Nationals Eating Championship. Competitive eating has now reached the college level.
They groaned. They burped. And they went back at it.

But this was no holiday feast. This was sport. A chance for the Big Time – or the Big Enchilada, if you will.

They were chewing and swallowing and burping and holding back possible regurgitation for a shot to go to the first-ever Collegiate Nationals Eating Championship, to be held today at Mission Beach.

The four finalists at last night's qualifying event at RT's Longboard Grill in Pacific Beach will now compete against each other and four of the top collegiate eaters from throughout the nation. The event, along with other Collegiate National competitions, such as volleyball, will even be on TV, on CBS and the CBS College Sports Network in May.

So they chowed, crammed and devoured.

And Ryan McMillan, 25, won. He cleaned up 2 pounds of french fries in 3 minutes and 18 seconds, and he doesn't even like fries. But the Mesa College student is 6 feet 5 inches and 240 pounds, and said, “I've never been full in my life.”

Competitive eating has now reached the college level. While students have been known to eat like this without needing such things as a referee, a time clock and a cheering crowd, it still raises eyebrows.

We're a fat nation, and getting fatter. And such events don't exactly celebrate restraint.

“It sets a poor example of us as a society,” said Michael Lee, a physician with the Scripps Clinic Center for Weight Management who deals with people suffering from a range of eating disorders.

“I tell them every day to moderate, and they turn on the TV and see this highly publicized event glorifying and rewarding this kind of behavior,” he said.

Such contests used to be kind of innocent, like a pie-eating contest at the county fair, Lee said.

Now it's called competitive eating. In addition to inhaling hot dogs, people battle to see who can eat the most fudge brownies, strawberries, German dumplings, zucchini (yuck) or frog legs (major yuck).

Now people train for these events. They travel. They make money. Some, such as Takeru Kobayashi, who won the Nathan's International July 4th Hot Dog Eating Contest six years straight, are famous.

U-T Multimedia: For video of last night's eating contest, go to uniontrib.com/more/eating
Arnie Chapman, chairman of the Association of Independent Competitive Eaters, a partner in the event, was present last night and discounted the criticism. He's a former competitive eater who holds the world record for eating pickles – 2.94 pounds in 3 minutes, 45 seconds.

“The beautiful thing about living in America is that you can do things that are edgy,” Chapman said.

The best competitive eaters aren't overweight, he said. They eat healthy and work out to prepare for such events.

At this one, “picnic rules” were in place, which meant contestants couldn't mash, dunk or manipulate the food. The competitors – or “food warriors,” as they were called – had to eat like normal people. Only much, much faster.

Collegiate Eating Competition

When: 5:30 to 6 p.m. today

Where: WaveHouse at Belmont Park, 3146 Mission Blvd.

Admission: Free. A music festival follows that is also open to the public.

Some seemed like naturals. Darrin Wolff, 28, a student at San Diego City College, cleaned his plate in just under five minutes, good enough to get him into today's event. He has watched Kobayashi on TV and tried to mimic his technique of alternating between bites and drinks of water.

“I can handle a lot of food,” Wolff said.

The other two finalists who will gorge today are Chris Hanson from Grossmont College and Josh Ballard from San Diego State University.

The only woman competing last night, Maggie Prowell, 18, of Colorado Mountain College, had a simple reason for signing up: “I'm hungry.” But not hungry enough. She wasn't a finalist.

Matt Redmond, 22, didn't exactly eat up the competition either. The University of California San Diego student couldn't finish his 2-pound plate of fries in the nine minutes allowed.

Then again, Redmond had no big aspirations. “I figured it was an opportunity to get a free meal,” he said.

But alas, there's no free meal. During the competition, Redmond felt close to throwing up, he said.

“I said to myself, 'This is not worth it.' ”

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