On our nation’s birthday this year, Mary Bowers plans to raise awareness about her own unusual American story — and those of other children — in a very American way: with hot dogs.
Bowers, who is ranked No. 49 among competitive eaters, and No. 11 among women, was born in South Korea and adopted as a five-month-old in 1982 by Billy and Cindy Bowers of Greeley.
She got into the sport in 2011 after attending a hot dog-eating competition in Orange County, Calif., where she’d only planned to be a spectator. But when someone asked her if she wanted to take the final spot in the contest, she said, “Why not? … I figured I haven’t had dinner yet, so I thought, ‘What the hell? I’ll get a free dinner out of this.”
Bowers managed to chow down seven and a half hot dogs in 12 minutes, and since the event happened to be a qualifier for the final round of Nathan’s International Hot Dog Eating Contest, she got a call from Major League Eating, the professional league of eating contests, to be the first-ever women’s wild card participant at the 2012 championship in Coney Island.
She placed 10th by eating 8.5 hot dogs in 10 minutes, and a year later, she ate 10 for a 7th place finish in the women’s category. Since then, Bowers has competed in hundreds of competitions, having put away 300 gyoza, 200 chicken wings, 150 hotdogs and 100 tacos during the time. Her most notable competition in Colorado was the Illegal Pete’s World Burrito Eating Contest at the Empower Field at Mile High stadium, where she placed ninth overall with three burritos.
In 2020, though, Bowers embarked on a different kind of challenge. She went back to Korea to find her birth parents. Instead, she discovered through her adoptive files that she had five different birthdays and four names. Bowers ultimately realized that she had been kidnapped and trafficked as a baby, and that the adoption home she came from is currently under investigation by Korea’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission for a number of alleged humanitarian crimes.
“What I thought would be a normal birth search has turned into an international investigation,” she said. “It’s frustrating because … I literally have a planner with different colored Post-its to manage the different aspects of my legal personhood. I feel like I know me. I’m one person. I know who I am, but the external world right now does not know that.”
Bowers previously competed in the Nathan’s hot dog-eating contest as a Colorado resident, but this time around, she had decided to represent South Korea — the first person to do so — as a way to bring some awareness to the human rights campaign in her native country.
That campaign was started by the Australia-United States Korean Rights Group, representing 16 Koreans adopted by families in the United States and Australia. Their petition calls on the U.S. Congress to investigate allegations of illegal and fraudulent adoptions from South Korea.
“Nearly 400 Korean adoptees from around the world have submitted cases, and they’re finding significantly more people who were affected,” Bowers said. “So I’m hoping that in this Nathan’s run, I can bring awareness to the issue and then also get the American public to root for us and provide their support.”
Bowers’ goal is to eat 16 hot dogs — nearly double her average — to represent each of the adoptee cases, including her own (the competition takes place from 9 to 11 a.m. on July 4 and is broadcast on ESPN). In the past, she has consistently eaten around eight hot dogs and buns, putting her at the middle of the board. At her last competition in 2019, she came in at No. 12 out of 15 women.
The current record for hotdog eating is 76 in ten minutes, held by Joey Chestnut for the men’s division and 48.5, held by Miki Sudo for the women’s in the same amount of time.
“World rankings are typically based on how many contests you compete in each year, as well your performance in Nathan’s competition,” Bowers said. “It’s like our Super Bowl.”
Bowers’ typical strategy is to prime her stomach with lots of liquids to stretch it out ahead of time, and she uses a glass of water to dunk her buns in before eating them in the competition. She said hot dogs are one of the more difficult competitive bites and require plenty of technique in terms of timing and rhythm.
Bowers’ favorite thing to competitively eat is ice cream sandwiches with a personal record of 14 ice cream sandwiches in six minutes. “It’s a little bit like a gladiator sport. When you have an injury and you ice it, everything gets numb, and the same thing happens when you’re eating quantities of ice cream,” she explained. “About maybe 30 seconds into the contest, you can no longer feel the inside of your mouth, and you don’t realize how aggressive you have been in the contest until everything thaws out and is bleeding at the end.”
The most she’s ever eaten in a short period of time is when she devoured five pounds of boysenberry pie in eight minutes at the 2015 Knott’s Boysenberry Festival World Pie Eating Championship.
“To give you an idea, the average person’s stomach holds about two and a half to three pounds of food,” Bowers said.
Competitive eating isn’t her full-time gig. Bowers, who has a degree in architecture, previously worked as an architectural project manager before heading to South Korea in 2020. She also often appears as a guest on TV and radio shows, including “America’s Got Talent,” which she performed on in 2021. Bowers ate her way through a cake she jumped out of, but was not voted past the first round.
“It was a challenge to film during the pandemic because there was no audience,” Bowers said. “I built the cake and designed the costume myself. I wish I had the opportunity to do it again under different circumstances.”
Bowers knows that this career won’t last forever, but she’s still hungry for more.
“For the people who have been at it for a long time, just like any other sport, you start to hear stories about jaw arthritis and strain on the body as a whole,” Bowers said. “I feel like I’m still in pretty good condition, but the real issue is the talented newcomers watching my old tape play. So at some point in time, I would like to stop while I’m still ahead. I don’t just want to wait until I’m hanging on for dear life at the bottom of the boards.”
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