Thomas wants more than free lunch

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Sonya Thomas has won back-to-back women's titles at the annual Nathan's Fourth of July hot dog eating competition.

This was a recent day's menu for Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas, the reigning Nathan's Famous hot dog eating queen.

A salad for lunch.

Seriously? That's it? A salad for lunch and nothing for breakfast or dinner? For someone who ate 40 hot dogs in 10 minutes to win the Nathan's women's competition two years ago? Who ate 45 hot dogs to win it again last year? Who ate 38 Moon Pies in 8 minutes, 11 pounds of cheesecake in 9 minutes and 47 dozen oysters in 8 minutes?

A salad?

And with no dressing?

"I eat a lot, but I have to control myself, too," said Thomas. "I can eat lots when I want to, but if I do that [too often,] I'll gain weight and not be healthy, don't you think? So I watch my diet, too. And exercise. … Even today. I had a salad with boiled chicken and that's about it."

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Sonya Thomas wasn't an instant success as a competitive eater, but has honed her technique to climb the ranks of professional eating.

Tell those all-you-can-eat buffet owners they can start breathing again.

That's the thing about competitive eating, though. It isn't all about appetite. It's also about speed and technique. And mental focus.

"It's more mental than physical," Thomas said.

Which is easy to believe considering Thomas has set records and won championships for eating Buffalo wings (183 wings, or 6 1/2 pounds, in 12 minutes), tacos (53 in 12 minutes) and hamburger sliders (57 in 8 minutes) despite weighing a mere 100 pounds.

Yes, she is just 5-foot-5 and can eat all that food and still weighs only 100 pounds. (Don't you just hate her?)

"When I first entered the hot dog competition, they thought I just came to eat a free lunch," Thomas said of her diminutive size. "At the Nathan's hot dog competition, you can eat the hot dogs for free so they just thought I was there for lunch. They never expected I could win."

Thomas, 45, didn't doubt herself. She has always had a winning desire, ever since she was a child growing up in South Korea.

"A lot of people complain about the United States, but they are spoiled," she said. "When I was growing up in South Korea, we were so poor, my family was so poor. And it was a very poor country at that time. I finished school, went to college and got a chance to go to America."

She immigrated to the United States in 1995 at age 27. Because people had difficulty pronouncing her Korean name (Lee Sun-kyung), she changed it to Sonya Thomas. Aside from being able to eat 250 ½ jalapeno peppers in 9 minutes, her story is similar to that of a lot of immigrants in that she works long, hard hours. She is the manager at a Burger King on Andrews Air Force Base, where she says she arrives at 5 in the morning and might work as late as 8 or 9.

"Sometimes, I work 16, 17 hours a day," said Thomas, who is single. "Besides eating in competitions, I'm a workaholic. I'm working. Working and sleep. When I'm working, it's 100 percent working. I cannot think about anything else. When I work, I want to be the best."

It's that same attitude that has made Thomas a champion competitive eater. At that first Nathan's contest in back in 2003, she ate just 18 hot dogs in 12 minutes. Yeah, just 18 hot dogs in 12 minutes. Embarrassing, huh? But Thomas quickly improved her technique and, at the next competition, ate 25 hot dogs. "It was just one week later," she said. "So I knew I hadn't reached my stomach capacity. It was about timing."

And technique. For instance, the key to the hot dog eating competition is dunking the bun in water (five second minimum), which makes the bread soupy and easy to get down. It's somewhat the same with the actual hot dog. But in addition to dunking it in water, you have to prepare your mind to swallow that thing quickly.

"Sometimes when you take medicine, you think 'I cannot swallow this pill.' It's that sort of feeling," Thomas said. "You have to train your brain that 'OK, this hot dog isn't big enough that I can't swallow it. Even if I don't chew it all the way, I can swallow it.' You can train yourself to swallow it.

"That's how I built up my speed. If you chew it all the way, you can't eat it that fast. There is no way you can do it, no way."

After working on her technique, Thomas soon was eating and winning everywhere. A record 65 hard-boiled eggs in 6 minutes, 40 seconds at an Indianapolis competition. Almost eight pounds of Turducken in 12 minutes at a Thanksgiving contest in Manhattan. Thirty-one and a half four-inch cheese quesadillas in 5 minutes in Orlando. Four pounds of toasted ravioli in 5 minutes in St. Louis. Forty-six mince pies in 10 minutes in Somerset, England.

And -- you may want to brace yourself -- 8 1/4 pounds of baked beans in less than three minutes (you probably don't want any more details on that one).

Of course, Thomas also eats healthy foods. Plenty of them. After all, she once ate nearly six pounds of asparagus in 10 minutes and, on another occasion, almost 10 pounds of okra in the same amount of time.

She won the 2004 Wing Bowl in Philadelphia by eating a record 167 wings in 32 minutes. She hoped to keep the title the next year by eating 200 wings, but instead finished second, losing 142-141 when officials ruled she hadn't completely cleaned the meat off some of the wings (wouldn't you love the job of wing-checker?).

Thomas nicknamed herself "The Black Widow" after the female spider that poisons male spiders and eats them. Thomas takes the same competitive approach to her rivals (minus injecting the poison, of course). "I want to be the best," she says. "I want to eat them."

She probably could, but it's best she sticks to hot dogs, oysters, chicken wings, jalapenos and fruit cakes (nearly five pounds in 10 minutes).

Thomas is currently ranked No. 3 among all eaters (males and female) by Major League Eating. (And yes, there really is such an organization.) Depending on whether the particular competition has separate divisions, Thomas competes against men or women or both.

"I still compete with men, but I can't be on top, No. 1," she said. "I can still be No. 4 or 5, but I cannot get to No. 2 or No. 1. That's not fair, to compete against the men, right? But some special women can eat a lot of food compared to men, too, but still, men are still better at eating than women."

There are a lot of wives who probably would agree.

Thomas is the world's top female competitive eater, but there is a new rival on the horizon. Miki Sudo beat six-time Nathan's men's champ and No. 1-ranked Joey Chestnut at a recent rib-eating competition (2.9 pounds of ribs in six minutes).

"She just finished 40 hot dogs in a qualifying round," Thomas said. "What does that mean? That I have to watch out."

Perhaps, but Sudo will have to watch out for Thomas as well.

"In America, you can do anything you can. Anything you want you can do it. You just need the desire," said Thomas, who occasionally signs autographs for the servicemen and women she serves at Burger King. "I had the desire in South Korea, but they didn't give me the opportunities and that makes me so mad. But in America, anything you desire, anything you want, you can do it."

You just need the hunger.

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