At Work: Sonya Thomas, Competitive Eater
By Jennifer Kim
Sonya Thomas likes to eat, but she can’t taste the food. Scarfing down 13 to 14 chicken wings per minute makes that hard to do.
Thomas is the top-ranked competitive eater in the United States and No. 2 internationally. Her accomplishments include downing 65 hard-boiled eggs in 6 minutes, 40 seconds; 162 buffalo wings in 12 minutes; and 552 oysters in 10 minutes.
In a field that attracts rather large men with abnormal appetites, at 5 foot 5 and 100 pounds, Thomas is an anomaly. “Even though this is a male-dominated sport, Sonya dominates,” says Richard Shea, President of the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE), which regulates eating contests. Shea says speed-eating is a sport because it’s a physical activity governed by rules. “It’s a refined skill that involves hand speed, jaw strength, and a mental game.”
He calls Thomas a “natural.”
Emigrating from Korea to Alexandria, Virginia, in 1997, Thomas, 37, always has loved competition but was told in Korea that she was not good enough to play sports such as basketball or badminton. In 2002, she saw a speed-eating contest on TV and was intrigued. In 2003, she entered her first contest and earned the IFOCE Rookie of the Year award. By 2004, she was the No. 1-ranked U.S. eater.
Shea describes the petite Thomas -with a stomach that can hold up to 16 pounds of food and liquid-as being very charming, quick to laugh, outgoing and very energetic. “She’s opened up our sport by helping us reach the female demographic,” Shea says. “People like her a lot. She’s our Larry Bird.”
At the time of our interview, Thomas had a sore throat (non-food related), but still, she enthusiastically rasped her way through our “speed-interview.”
Is competitive eating really a sport?
Thomas: It’s the sport of eating. Real competition is a sport, don’t you think? There’s physical and mental training.
What kind of training?
Thomas: You have to pace yourself and not get nervous because if you get nervous, you can’t swallow the food. If you eat quick and fast, the food won’t go down to your stomach. It stays in your chest. Then you can’t eat more. You have to make sure it pushes down into your stomach. That means you have to have water. You have to practice these things.
What gives you the drive to win?
Thomas: My personality. I hate to lose. Even though I am a woman, my mind is like a man. I’m a very strong person. So that’s why I keep winning.
Is that a Korean thing?
Thomas: Yes, definitely. I have to always be No. 1. When I was in school and my friends would beat me at something, I couldn’t stand it. I was not that good at speed-eating at first, but I kept trying. “I can do it, I can do it.”
How much money did you make from the competitions last year?
Thomas: About $50,000.
Thomas: That’s including a brand new car and all the prize money because I was the U.S. top eater, No. 1.
That’s a lot.
Thomas: Hey, after taxes that’s not much. That’s good part-time money. I have a full-time job.
That’s right, you’re a manager at Burger King.
Thomas: I love working there. I never think about, “Oh, I hate to go to work” or something like that. I’ve been working for Burger King for about nine years as a manager.
What do you like about working there?
Thomas: It keeps me so busy. My body is always moving.
I read somewhere that you studied hotel management.
Thomas: Yes, while working as a typist in Korea, I went to college to get a degree. I wanted to change to something different like food, so that I could interact with people. So that’s why I got a hotel management degree. This is related to where I am working now … When I was a typist, I was heavier than now, just sitting down all day. In fast food you’re moving all the time.
How does your family feel about your competitive eating?
Thomas: At first, you know Korean style, OK, Koreans believe that eating is a stupid thing to do. That’s Korean belief. Most stupid thing is the competition, they believe. Now it’s very popular than before when they thought it was stupid … (My family) was worried because I eat so much in competition …”Your stomach is going to explode,” my dad said.
In the long run, is this going to hurt you? What does your doctor say?
Thomas: They said I’m fine. They check my blood pressure and cholesterol and my stomach, everything. Everything is OK. So I’m not worried. As long as you can control yourself and do exercise to not gain weight then I think you should be OK.
If there was no prize money, would you still do it?
Thomas: No, no, no.
Why do you like the sport?
Thomas: Because winning is so much fun. Including money makes everything happy. I like watching when I am not competing.
What are your future plans?
Thomas: I aspire to be the No. 1 competitive eater in the world — period! Beyond competitive eating, I also, some day, want to have my own fast food restaurant.