What Drives A Competitive Eater?

How a love of his sport inspires Juan Neave to down dozens of hot dogs.

By Kevin WheelerJuly 4, 2018 1:07 pm| ,

It’s July 4th. For many this national holiday means family, fireworks and fun. It’s a celebration of the freedoms we all enjoy. The founding of our country. But for a special few, this freedom is a license to eat as many hot dogs as they can in front of a cheering crowd. Yes, July 4th is when Nathan’s holds its annual Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Competition. Several contestants may down 10 dogs, far fewer will make it over 40. Last year’s winner, Joey Chestnut, set a new Nathan’s record downing 72 franks, buns and all, to take home the coveted mustard belt.

This year Chestnut will attempt to hold his title, and others will try to strip it from him. It’s a tall task. But one Austin native thinks he’s up to the challenge. Juan Neave will compete. He’s a competitive eater who qualified for the tournament from San Antonio.

Last year was Neave’s first full year of competitive eating, and he’s learned how to prepare for a competition. While Neave doesn’t eat anything solid before an event, he doesn’t starve himself either; he just sticks to a liquid diet; coffee, powerade, even milkshakes. These things give Neave energy without filling up his stomach too much. After this first year of experience, he believes he’s ready for the big time.

“I sort of got bored just winning without much of a competition,” Neave says. “When I saw Nathan’s was coming to San Antonio I thought, ‘well, how do I stand against the pros?’”

One-and-a-half hot dogs made the difference in the qualifier, sending Neave to New York City for a shot at the Nathan’s mustard belt.  

“Honestly I had no idea I was going to win it,” he says. “In my head, I was just thinking I’ll be lucky if I even come somewhere close to winning.”

Neave has tasted, among many other things, a fair share of success in his Major League Eating career. Last month in Ottumwa, Iowa, for example, he finished in second place in a canteen sandwich (essentially a sloppy joe) eating contest. That was good for a cool $1,000. But that pales in comparison to the purse at the Nathan’s competition, where contestants will down as many franks as their stomachs will allow for a chance at $10,000. While some may shudder at the thought of eating even three or four hot dogs, Neave happens to enjoy them.

“I love hot dogs,” Neave says. “I’ve been practicing a good amount, and even then If I see a hot dog on the table, I’ll crave it.”

Neave doesn’t feel that way about everything he’s eaten competitively. After a corn eating competition in April, Neave says he still doesn’t want corn. But that’s not because of the taste. It’s the sheer quantities of a certain food that turn Neave off. It’s hard to stuff your face with a single food item for minutes straight.

“Six minutes is a sprint for us, eight minutes is perfect, ten minutes is a marathon,” Neave says. “Anything above that is just crazy.”

Despite the gluttonous aspect of his sport, Neave says he doesn’t gain any weight. He’s a construction worker who works out four or five times a week. That’s where most of his energy goes, Neave says. But as to why he became a competitive eater, Neave points to the fact that he was always a good eater, could always put away plates of food quickly. But there was something else about competitive eating that drew Neave in. He didn’t want to just play sports or video games. He wanted to set himself apart.

“I never wanted to be normal whatsoever,” Neave says. ”So this is perfect for me.”