With less than a month left before this year's Nathan's Famous hot dog eating championships at Coney Island, just a handful of qualifying contests remain for big eaters hoping to qualify for the big event, one of them just minutes away across the Oklahoma border at Winstar World Casino.
Sunday afternoon, local eater and former Observer cover boy "Nasty Nate" Biller will try to eat his way back to New York City, but to do so, he'll have to outpace 14th-ranked Adrian "the Rabbit" Morgan.
Morgan's one of the rising stars of Major League Eating, and though he finished third at Winstar last year with 20.5 hot dogs and buns, he's already eaten 27 at a qualifying event earlier this year.
Reached by phone this morning, Biller tells City of Ate he's matched that mark in practice runs over the last few weeks, though it's more than he's eaten in a contest.
This time around, the contest's seeing one of the largest format changes in years: The hungriest woman at the table qualifies for a separate ladies-only hot dog contest at Coney Island. It's a big change in what's long been seen as a men's game, despite the fact some of the biggest legends in competitive eating are women.
Biller says he's been training alongside Alabama-born newcomer Katrina Klein -- dubbed "The Hurricane" in a Wichita Falls Times Record News piece -- who's gunning for a spot at that table. "Obviously she knows who I am and she just wanted some help," Biller says. "She's pretty good for a girl."
Klein didn't immediately return a call for comment, but Biller says women are typically underrepresented in competitive eating, first, because of the gross-out spectacle, and second, "even though it's been proven wrong, I think there's still an idea that the guys are gonna be better at it," Biller says.
The announcement of the women's contest was controversial at first, because Nathan's was offering prizes totaling just $5,000, one quarter of the men's purse. Nathan's eventually upped the women's prizes to make them equal with the men's: a $10,000 award for first place, down to $1,000 for fifth.
The controversy sparked an ugly debate from fans who equated the women's contest with an undercard fight, and others who wondered about putting highly ranked Sonya Thomas -- who beat Joey Chestnut at a hot wing eating contest last fall -- at a less competitive table.
Major League Eating president and emcee George Shea says the new contest was meant to bring more attention to the sport's top women, but so far it's also managed to generate interest from competitors who might not have otherwise entered. "By creating a female champion of the world, you help people generate the focus that they deserve."
Shea says Thomas, particularly, is always one of the top stars at Coney Island, but that once the contest starts, all eyes are on Chestnut. "Here's a woman performing at an enormously impressive level," Shea says, but "Joey walks away with the bulk of the focus."
"Nathan's has always wanted to celebrate the women a little bit more," Shea says. "I thought that there was an inherent celebration of women by having women and the table and not separating them. They said, 'I get it, but it's not, because what's happening is it's getting lost."
So far, women have qualified for the Coney Island contest with as many as 34 hot dogs (Thomas) and as few as three (Lauren Gallagher, in Boston). Shea says he expects the new contest will air on ESPN before the men's event, though he says he hasn't heard for sure. He's still working out how his act will differ from one event to the next; while the gross-out factor has always been part of the sport's appeal, it'd be easy to make too big a deal of the unladylike spectacle of the new contest. "There is a novelty factor in focusing on the volume that they are consuming," Shea says.
"It remains to be seen how much this is embraced by the media," Shea says, but he knows the live crowd will be on board. "The audience loves it when a woman competes. When Sonya beat Joey last year in Buffalo, it was just electric."
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