OTTUMWA — Sarah Reinecke loves when people underestimate her at competitive eating events. She's also a competitive bodybuilder. She doesn't look like she could possibly pack away huge amounts of food.
Then she starts eating.
Food is the reason she’s preparing for a trip to Ottumwa from Seattle, Washington. She’ll be one of six professional, and six amateur, competitive eaters. The World Champion Canteen Eating Contest is Saturday. Though only 10 minutes long, it’s the centerpiece of a weekend of activities celebrating the opening of the new Canteen Alley.
“I like the look on their faces, in a restaurant with a food challenge, they look at me like, ‘Aw, the sweet little girl is going to try this’. I love to surprise them.”
Not everything makes sense in a world where gorging on pounds of food in mere minutes is something to be proud of; the prize in Ottumwa is several thousand dollars. Reinecke’s boyfriend, whom she met on the competitive eating circuit, is also a bodybuilder — and a male model. While some of the eaters listed at Major League Eating are big, most are athletic. Besides bodybuilding at a national level, Reinecke owns a fitness and nutrition company.
“For years, most people thought the big, big guy with the dirty white T-shirt was the one to beat. But your stomach can stretch farther when there’s not a lot of fat pressing against it.”
And there will need to be stretching if you plan to enter these contests. It’s another reason why athletic people do well on the circuit. They’re not just eating what would be a lot for the average person. To win, they need what would be considered a lot by other competitive eaters. They have to push themselves. They’re completely full but keep pushing, even if it hurts. Athletes, weightlifters included, are used to improving themselves by going past what their previous maximum number of sets were.
“When you’re lifting, and you have to do another set, you need to quiet that voice that’s telling you it’s enough, to quit. An athlete will push through.”
But that doesn’t mean she can eat like this and compete with a sculpted body. This bodybuilder spends half the year gaining muscle, along with some fat. Then she spends half a year dieting and lifting weights in a way to sculpt her body. The end result on the flexing stage is a body where every muscle is easily visible to the judges.
“And it just so happens that competitive eating season is when I don’t need to cut,” she said. “When I did Coney Island [Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Championship] last year, I got on the plane and immediately started my 16-week cut diet; I lost 30 pounds. So when I’m in Ottumwa, I won’t look crazy jacked; I’ll look like a kind of fit, strong-looking female.”
There’s not a ton of money to be made in this “business.” In fact, eaters pay their own way to and from events. MLE is not an entity that forces them to go anywhere they don’t want.
“We get to choose, and it’s up to us to decide whether to make the trek. If I do one of these contests, I do one where I know I’m going to enjoy the food. The main reason for doing these contests are the other eaters; I love these people. We spend time together, we talk, we visit and we hang out outside of contests; it’s a weird little family of people.”
By the way, it’s a weird little family with an EMT on site at every contest. Major League Eaters is very serious when they recommend against practicing extreme eating at home or anywhere that doesn’t have an EMT standing by. People without safety precautions have choked. Some have died. Ottumwa will have an EMT — otherwise, says a informational page only seen on MLE’s website, they will not have the contest.
Major League Eating is the organization which sanctions the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest at Coney Island in New York City.
No matter who wins Saturday, one thing is certain: When the eating starts, no one will take Sarah Reinecke lightly.
Big eaters plan to descend upon Ottumwa
OTTUMWA — Here is a list of all of Saturday’s eaters, scheduled to compete at 1 p.m. Saturday in Central Park.
A release from Major League Eaters said that “Matthew Raible, ranked No. 40 eater in the world, stopped by the Canteen to try the legendary "sandwich” during a recent visit to Ottumwa.
“They’re delicious,” he said, according to the release. After eating his 10th sandwich in under 20 minutes, he ordered two more — to go.
Giden Oji, originally from Nigeria is currently ranked as the No. 6 eater in the world. However, he is number one when determining the tallest athlete ever to join Major League Eating. At 6-foot-9, he played college basketball. But he’s better known for winning a competition by eating one-pound kale salads. He finished 25 of them in eight minutes.
Juan Rodriguez, the world’s No. 12 eater, lives in Crestwood, Illinois. Sometimes, the biographies listed on the professional eaters’ Web pages need to be taken with, ahem, a grain of salt.
His biography lists him as having an Australian accent, being a personal trainer and weighing 165 pounds. It also says he loves Twitter. All of those things sounded a bit — questionable. So the Courier contacted him on Twitter. Turns out all were truthful except for one fact.
“Not even close,” he wrote back about the fib. “It’s a Chicago accent!”
Juan Neave is considered the world’s No. 23 professional eater. He ate 22.5 Nathan's Famous hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes. From Austin, Texas, he’s 19 and weighs in at 177 pounds.
The world’s No. 36 eater, Sarah Reinecke is fitness and nutrition guru from Seattle (see feature).
Matthew Raible is close to being from the area: The No. 40 eater is from Peoria, Illinois. He’s said to be soft spoken, well-liked and always arrives on time for events.
Andrew Kogutkiewicz is the No. 45 ranked eater. From Racine, Wisconsin, he’ll be the lowest ranked of the world’s top eaters to visit Ottumwa this weekend. His bio is empty except for one fact: Andrew weighs 250 pounds.
Some of the unranked eaters have their own stories:
Tanner Varner, now in Urbandale, graduated from Ottumwa High School, was an NCAA D1 Runner Up in football and spent 10 years playing professional football.
Michelle Severino of Springfield, Iowa, has a culinary claim to fame: She won the doughnut eating contest at the Illinois State Fair last summer.
Mark Williams could be a surprise underdog: From Marshalltown, a press release lists him as an MLE Veteran. A release from the Ottumwa Area Convention and Visitor’s Bureau lists him as “Iowa’s top eater.”
Not listed as a top eater, Michael Blue: He’s a member of The Dweebs, a band performing at the Bridge View Center that evening.
And taking a shot at glory: Andrew Webber plus Douglas Hunter Boyd Jr. of Ottumwa.
Staff writer Mark Newman can be contacted at MNewman@ottumwacourier.com.