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Meet The Athletes Going for Gyoza-Eating Gold In Little Tokyo This Weekend

Competitive eater Mary Bowers at a hot dog eating competition. (Photo by Robert O'Neill)
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Mary Bowers found her calling -- or at least one of her callings -- at a hot dog eating competition.

It was Orange County, circa 2011. She entered what she thought would be a low-key, local eating contest. It turned out to be a qualifier for an event where Japanese eating phenom Takeru Kobayashi was the headliner.

"That's kind of like being drafted onto the junior varsity basketball team and then being told that you're going to play on the court with LeBron," Bowers says.

Vegetarian gyoza filled with Napa cabbage, carrots, bamboo shoots, mushrooms and soy protein. (Photo by Rubyran/Flickr Creative Commons)
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This Saturday, she'll serve as a commentator at the Day-Lee World Gyoza Eating Championship in Little Tokyo, part of L.A.'s annual Nisei Week festivities. In the world of competitive eating, this is what's known as a capacity contest. Contestants have 10 minutes to inhale as many of the soft Japanese dumplings as they can. Last year, champion Joey Chestnut finished with 377 although he set set the world record in 2014 when he ate 384. He'll be back to defend his title from Matt "Megatoad" Stonie, Miki Sudo and Darron Ray Breeden, among others.

[UPDATE: Chestnut won the 2018 competition, scarfing down 359 gyoza in 10 minutes.]

"Something like chicken wings is more about technique," Bowers says. "Hot dogs are about how quickly you're able to manipulate the food with your hands or your mouth. Gyoza are small and compact, so there's not a lot of chewing involved. It's really just about how much does somebody hold."

Miko Sudo chows down during the 2014 Day-Lee Foods World Gyoza Eating Championship. (Photo by Alan Miyatake)

Competitive eater Jon Bello agrees. "People have their forte in different foods. Being on the circuit for a little while, you figure out which foods are more technique and which will take a little bit more chewing. Gyoza is an easier food to eat," he says.

Doug Ecks likes gyoza because their flavor profile makes them enjoyable for the duration of the contest. "Some contests, a few minutes in, you're pretty much done with that food and just have to power through. Gyoza is really great in that the physical makeup make them a bit easier to get down. That's why you see such impressive numbers when you watch videos of the fight," Ecks says.

Joey Chestnut is crowned the winner of the 2014 Day-Lee Foods World Gyoza Eating Championship. (Photo by Alan Miyatake)

This year, you won't see Bowers "on the field." Like other veteran athletes, think Tara Lipinski or Troy Aikman, she's making the transition from competing in her sport to commenting on it. But you will be able to spot her because she'll probably be dressed like a gyoza. Bowers specializes in custom foodie fashions and dresses like the food of every contest in which she participates.

The biggest myth about competitive eaters? That they're fat and lazy.

"The healthier and leaner you are, the better you tend to do in the contest," Bowers says. "It's been this misconception that competitive eaters are large and out of shape. That's simply not true."

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Competitive eater Mary Bowers at a hot dog eating competition. (Photo by Nathan's Famous Bun Boys: Major League Eating)

Mary Bowers
Age: "the subject is mystery"
Residence: Beverly Hills
Occupation: fashion designer
Her Specialty: "I tend to excel in sweets. I've eaten five pounds of boysenberry pie in eight minutes. I did extremely well at ice cream sandwiches. I competed in donuts. Pretty much anything that you'll find at a summer food store, that's an eating contest favorite for me."
Training Regimen: "I've been eating every day since I was born, so I've been preparing my entire life."
Strategy: "It's a little bit like Tetris. You have all of the little falling blocks and pieces, and you have to figure out how to fit all of them together. That's exactly how the gyoza contest works, only it's inside your body. You have to feel what's happening and make sure all those tiny pieces get wiggled into the right spot."

Doug Ecks competes in the Day-Lee Foods World Gyoza Eating Championship. (Photo by Toyo Miyatake Studio)

Doug Ecks
Age: 37
Residence: Hollywood, Las Vegas
Occupation: Comedian
Mental Strategy: "It's about staying hungry and focused, as Badlands Booker would say. It's maintaining a high appetite and making sure that your body is physically ready for the amount of food that you'll be eating."
Physical Preparation: "You have to make sure that you're hungry. You may want to [limit] the amount of food you eat in the 24 hours beforehand. Have your last huge meal at least a day before. Morning of, maybe I could fit in like a light workout, nothing too strenuous."
Mindset: "When the contest finally starts, you turn off certain parts of your brain, like the part of your brain that tells you you're full or the part of your brain that tells you you've had enough, and you just go for it."
For The Love Of Sport: "I'm very happy to be part of this sport and I do consider it a sport as far as testing the human physical limits and really pushing yourself."

Jon Bello competes in the Day-Lee Foods World Gyoza Eating Championship.(Photo by Toyo Miyatake Studio)

Jon Bello
Age: 39
Residence: Torrance
Occupation: tire sales
First Competitive Eating Event: burritos
Previous Competitions: nachos, chicken wings, pizza, street tacos, pickles, gyoza, hot dogs
Strategy: "Going into the competition, my strategy is just to find my rhythm, find my pace and make sure I don't overstuff my mouth. Lots of liquids to make sure that gyoza goes down very fast and easy. And just go all out."
Mindset: "If you're a competitive person, it just takes over your body. You just go all in and go as fast as you can."

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