This past Fourth of July Weekend, the annual Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest held a womens division for the first time. The inaugural champion was Sonya Thomas, aka "The Black Widow," a 43-year-old Korean American, who won by eating 40 hot dogs in 10 minutes.
This is the first I had heard of The Black Widow, and I am a bit ashamed to admit that, because this was by far not her first competitive eating victory. In fact, since her debut in 2003, she has set and broken many world records, defeated men who are household names like Takeru Kobayashi and Joey Chestnut, and is currently ranked the #6 competitive eater in the world. It is also worthy to note that Ms. Thomas achieves all this despite weighing in at 98 pounds.
After reading a few news articles, I was smitten. I knew we Korean gals can pack it in like no one's business, but other than brief mentions on where she grew up in Korea, there was no mention of how being Korean helped or hindered her at all. Here's the backstory, in her own words, to winning 29 competitive eating world titles.
Kimchi Mamas: Are your parents back in Korea aware of your competitive eating success, and if so, how do they feel about it?
Sonya Thomas: I think lots of Koreans feel negatively towards competitive eating, they think of it as a bit foolish: why do this instead of using your brain? They also worry about my health, if my stomach will explode or something. My parents were the same way when they first heard about it. In fact, I didn't actually eat that much as a child, so they were totally surprised. They were worried, but after they saw me on the news, they were happy for me. Now, they're not exactly proud, but they know their daughter did something special.
KM: That sounds like the best you can ask for with any Korean parent. Was there anything from your childhood that helps you at all today?
ST: From childhood to now, I have always been competitive, I always want to be the best, to show people I'm special. I'm not really outgoing, kind of shy, but anything active, I'm determined to show people I "have it."
KM: Oh wow. Where does that drive come from?
ST: I was born in 1967, and it was a hard time for Korea, and my family was very poor. My parents, 2 brothers, my sister, and I lived in a 1 room house. Not a lot of people could afford to eat white rice, so they would mix their rice with barley. But our family's rice was all barley! The American government also gave us flour...so we had noodles everyday.
I had to be brave, more brave then than now. My first day of elementary school, I walked there by myself, and registered myself. After that, I always tried to help my parents earn money. I remember one time, I was 8 or 9, and we went to the ocean to catch clams. I kept pushing myself to work faster and faster, and I dug up more than my mom! About 40 pounds of clams! Afterwards, as we opened the shells, I was the fastest. I was the third child, but I was the boss! [Laughs]
KM: You sound like you'd be the perfect athlete.
ST: During school, I competed a lot in sports, but I wasn't that good. I wasn't a fast runner, I was too short and not a good enough shooter for basketball, and my reflexes were too slow for badminton. But I still wanted to be the best at something. Competitive eaters aren't only competitive in eating; we must be competitive in other things. I was born like that, always wanting to do something special all the time, something different from other people. Eating is one of my skills. In others, if I'm not that great, i just give up and try something else.
KM: That is so Korean!
ST: [Laughs] Yes, it's very Korean: very competitive, very "hurry hurry,' no patience.
KM: Sonya, thank you so much for taking the time out to talk to us. Best of luck, and FIGHTING!!!
Sonya Thomas' next competition will be at the Buffalo Wing Festival in Buffalo, NY during Labor Day Weekend.