NEW YORK — Reigning hot dog eating champion Joey Chestnut held onto his title on Sunday amid the cheers of voracious fans hungry for the return of the annual competition on Coney Island.
The champ gobbled down 76 hot dogs in 10 minutes, topping by one wiener his own world record set last year, to win the annual Nathan’s Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest. It was Chestnut’s 14th victory in 15 years.
“I feel like I could eat a little more,” the seemingly insatiable Chestnut, 37, said afterward, although he admitted feeling “a little bloated.”
“I’m just super happy,” he said. “In the second half, the crowd pushed me.”
He beat the second place finisher Geoffrey by a whopping 26 wieners.
Fans of the contest were celebrating its return to its Brooklyn home after pandemic restrictions forced a venue change for last year’s event.
One special onlooker seeing the contest for the first time in person was Princeton, New Jersey, resident Tabitha Bellamy, 45, who babysat Chestnut as a child.
“I’m absolutely amazed. I’m so proud,” said Bellamy, who said Chestnut was a “very, very rambunctious child.”
A hot-dog-hatted Mayor Bill de Blasio was also on hand to congratulate and share his insights: “It is a dog-eat-dog world … we should relish this moment!”
“This was a great way to celebrate after being home,” she added. “I was just feeling the electricity and positivity from the crowd.”
The winner of the women’s division, Michelle Lesco of Tucson, Arizona, downed 30 and three-quarter hot dogs, including a piece she dropped on the ground but picked up and ate nonetheless.
“I feel awesome,” she said, adding, “The crowd was crazy.”
Valerie and Jason Gagnon, both 45, brought their two kids, ages 8 and 5, for a first time in-person look at the show. The family moved to the area from Florida last year.
“We’re celebrating getting out of the house,” the mom said. “This is a New York Fourth of July staple. We’re excited.”
Lesco, 37, the women’s winner and a school teacher, said it was hard to train while locked down by COVID-19.
“It was really stressful. It’s hard to motivate yourself at home,” she said.
Last year’s women’s victor Miko Sudo is pregnant and opted to skip the contest, Nathan’s said. Sudo has won the coveted Mustard Belt seven times.
Making his debut as a hot dog mascot this year was Billy Cancal, 30, a performance artist and poet living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
“This is my first year,” he said. “It’s a big responsibility. “I think there will be a lot of hungry people this year… hungry for the Fourth of July, hungry for ketchup, mustard, relish.”
Damon Schmitt, from northwest Ohio, said he came to the contest for the first time to celebrate his 30th birthday, which also was on Sunday.
“It’s been on my bucket list forever,” he said. “We watch it every year, it’s a tradition. But it’s our first year in person.”
Fan Jesse Correali, 23, of Staten Island, said she came especially to root for Chestnut.
“I have a poster of him in my room,” she said.
Dennis Fulton, 29, trekked down from Manhattan’s Upper East Side to watch the gulping festivities.
“I can’t do it, but I admire people who can.”