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He entered the raffle to be one of the amateur contestants, but he wasn't chosen. He attended the St. Patrick's Day event anyway, watching from the bleachers. There, in front of cameras and lights and a crowd of drunken spectators, were the vaunted professional eaters Wrecking Ball had read about and seen on television. There were Deep Dish and Notorious B-O-B and the Black Widow and Joey Chestnut, the only man to defeat Kobayashi on the Fourth of July.
"Seeing everybody up there on the stage," he says, "I knew I could do it."
In April, he entered the corn-on-the-cob competition in West Palm Beach as an amateur — "We call them table-enders," says Antolini. "But everybody's gotta start somewhere." Though it was his first eating contest, Wrecking Ball took third, buzzing through 28 ears of sweet corn in 12 minutes. Joe LaRue, from Hollywood, won the event, setting a world record with 46 ears.
It was a turning point in Wrecking Ball's life: "I knew this is what I was meant to do."
Consider the pickle. The warped, slimy exterior, often emitting an eye-opening stench. The soft, lighter insides — more than 85 percent liquid, just like humans. Pickles possess a comedic quality. Just saying the word pickle often gets a snicker or a giggle. A pickle is an innuendo, an awkward, difficult situation.
But the pickle endures. Mesopotamians pickled cucumbers more than 4,000 years ago. They're mentioned twice in the Old Testament. Pickle fans include Aristotle, Cleopatra, Napoleon, and George Washington. Thomas Jefferson wrote, "On a hot day in Virginia, I know nothing more comforting than a fine spiced pickle, brought up trout-like from the sparkling depths of the aromatic jar below the stairs of Aunt Sally's cellar."
What we call a pickle is generally a cucumber, plucked from the vine, dropped in a vinegar brine — usually involving dill and garlic and a lot of salt — and left to marinate for a few months. It's separated, saturated, and left alone for a long time, not unlike how a lot of competitive eaters are made.
There are three key skills speed eaters must master. There's jaw strength, swallowing capability, and stomach capacity. And certain foods use certain areas more than others. For example, the hot-dog-eating contest — "The Super Bowl of competitive eating," as Antolini calls it — requires a mastery of all three. That's why top-ranked eater Joey Chestnut (who wasn't at the pickle championship) can down 68 dogs and buns in 12 minutes but Hoover struggles to top 40. "I just can't swallow as fast as those guys," Hoover says.
But he can chew really, really hard. And that's what a lot of people figure will factor most in the pickle contest. The previous record for sour pickles is 2.99 pounds in six minutes.
For the pros, Hoover says, capacity won't be an issue. Most of his training has been in jaw strength. Beginning eight weeks before an event, Hoover will throw ten or 12 sticks of gum in his mouth and work it into something the size of a racquetball. Then he chews it as fast and hard as possible for a minute. The next day, he'll do three or four minutes. Then an easier day, back to one. Then back up to five or six. He models his regimen on marathon preparation.
Wrecking Ball, the vet from Palm Beach Gardens, got his training advice straight from the Black Widow during a brief conversation before an event earlier this year. "She told me to drink a lot of water and eat a lot of lettuce to stretch my stomach," he says. "And a lot of cardio. You need to make your body need those calories." In preparation for this event, Wrecking Ball also ate a jar of about 12 pickles a day for the week leading up to the contest to "get totally used to the taste," he says. "If the taste is gonna stop anybody, it'll be one of my opponents." Before the jalapeño pepper contest in San Antonio, he practiced with the wrong pickled jalapeños for several days and says that's the main reason he ate only 45.
For safety reasons, Major League Eating has a policy discouraging competitors from practicing. "Someone could choke or... who knows what," Wrecking Ball says. Aside from the standard sore jaw, stained teeth, rather unpleasant digestion, and temporary fatigue — "like the feeling you get right after a huge Thanksgiving dinner," Hoover says — the competitors all say there aren't any short-term effects from such gorging — a testament to the durability of the human body, they say.
Competitive eating has, thus far, evaded serious scientific scrutiny, but there are definitely risks. Swallowing pickles that haven't been chewed can inflame the esophagus. Several pounds of them ingested quickly could cause a stomach to rupture. Each pickle contains 750 milligrams of sodium, about half the daily recommendation — and beating the record would mean the winner will ingest about eight times the daily intake.
As far as the consequences of ingesting that much sodium or cholesterol or fat and repeatedly stretching the stomach to fit bowling-ball-sized feasts week after week for years, Hoover says nobody really knows if there will be long-term effects.