Nearing end of career, hot dog eating champ Joey Chestnut has big goals: 'I'm still going for 80'

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If there were ever a time when Joey Chestnut could possibly be perceived as vulnerable to lose his hard-earned "Mustard Yellow Belt," it's this July. 

The 14-time Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest champion injured his right leg after falling down a hill in December and spent 13 days in the hospital recovering. He then suffered a ruptured tendon while on a training run in May. While neither physical setback affected his famous stomach known for devouring frankfurters, the 38-year-old Chestnut confides his body's recovery time and weight fluctuation routine have inevitably slowed at an older age.

He's also grieving the loss of his mother and "first trainer," Alicia Chestnut, who died last month.

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Logic would suggest Chestnut, a fan-favorite juggernaut in competitive eating since he upended Takeru Kobayashi for his first title in 2007, is ripe for an upset. Maybe Matt Stonie, who stunned Chestnut in 2015 to claim the Mustard Yellow Belt, will have enough stamina to beat Chestnut, who's eclipsed 70 hot dogs in the last six contests.

But don't count on it.

That isn't how "Jaws" thinks about his sport, nor his chances of beating everyone – including himself and his previous records – on a psychological level. In fact, all the adversity swirling around makes him feel more competitive, perhaps more than ever before.

Winners Joey Chestnut and Michelle Lesco, obscured behind hot dogs, pose at the Nathan's Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog-Eating Contest in Coney Island's Maimonides Park on Sunday, July 4, 2021.
Winners Joey Chestnut and Michelle Lesco, obscured behind hot dogs, pose at the Nathan's Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog-Eating Contest in Coney Island's Maimonides Park on Sunday, July 4, 2021.

"I'm still going for 80," Chestnut told USA TODAY. "Most athletes have two kinds of primes. Their first prime is when their body is the best. I've passed that prime. The second prime is when their mind and knowledge is at its best, where you know your body and how to practice less but be just as prepared. I'm there now."

While Chestnut is determined to eclipse his own 2021 record of 76 hot dogs eaten in 10 minutes, he's also keen to stare down the twilight of his own career. What's the longevity or shelf life for a hot dog-eating typhoon? 

"I've still got a lot left," Chestnut said. "I've got a couple years left in me. If Tom Brady can play in his 40s, I can make it to my 40s doing this. Just like construction workers and carpenters can't lift things in their careers, it works the same way with food when your bodies get older.

"But I'm still emotionally hungry. This is what I love to do. I love competition and hope people out there can love what they do as much as I love competitive eating. I love hot dogs! It's hard for me to imagine a day where I'm not in a Nathan's contest."

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Chestnut's legacy, partially detailed in the 2019 30-for-30 documentary, "The Good, the Bad and the Hungry," is one that's challenged people's perceptions of professional eating. Chestnut said what he does is indisputably a sport, citing what he puts his body through.

"Just because I do something inherently unhealthy, I still am pretty healthy overall," he said. "I feel like garbage before fasting and after eating the hot dogs because I've pushed my body to the limit. But so do marathoners after they've done the same."

Chestnut's glass-half-full demeanor and competitive edge are part of what has defined his character. He's shown up pounding his chest with enthusiasm at Coney Island over the years, inspiring a connection between the fans and the guy with usually a shy personality.

"The Fourth of July is a day where everybody can be proud to be an American and put all the other negative stuff aside," Chestnut said. "The hot dog contest is sort of a sweet spot, it's innocent and happy, and because it's paired with the red, white and blue, I think that's why people love it.

"We all have fun memories of some type of eating contest growing up. Nathan's has found a way to everybody's inner child."

Chestnut's childhood is one he's found himself looking back on as he reflects on a career that includes world records in chicken wings, Big Mac hamburgers, gyros, tacos, doughnuts and ice cream sandwiches, among others.

"I was the biggest eater in a family of six," a smiling Chestnut said. "My mom would get mad at me for eating too much because we needed to leave leftovers for when my dad came home from work."

Chestnut said it was his brother who signed him up for his first hot dog eating competition in 2005 while he was still a student at San Jose State. He admits that he didn't want to go because he was so shy but went anyway because of a free casino hotel. Before that Independence Day, Chestnut revealed his eating gift felt like more of a curse.

"For a while, I was really self-conscious because I loved to eat so much and so fast. It sucks when your plate is empty and others are just getting started. But then as soon as I got on stage (at Nathan's contest in '05), I loved it and got hooked. All of the sudden, I didn't have to hold back who I was anymore. It was so pure. I've never had a feeling like I was made for something.

"This whole experience in my life (the last 17 years) has been like a weird wave in the ocean. I just got on and didn't know how long it would last. I just hope it lasts a little while longer."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Joey Chestnut has 'couple years left' at July 4 hot dog eating contest