Molly Schuyler is dropping ice cubes over the world’s spiciest burrito, strategically prepping her bright red bundle of ghost peppers, habaneros and mouth pain.
The Diablo Burrito is only 2 lbs. – minuscule in Schuyler’s world of crushing three 72 oz. steaks in 20 minutes – but is crammed with peppers so hot they’ll burn your skin. She is deeply focused, her eyes narrowed. The crowd at Allan’s Mexican Restaurant watches her movements, at once mechanical and graceful, in a sort of reverent silence. She spends an entire minute of her time assessing the burrito – a lioness stalking her prey – and slicing it into pieces. Some sauce squirts onto her lap. “Ah, dammit, it’s on my pants! My good pants that I got on sale,” she jokes, her eyes never leaving the plate.
The moderators inform her that the clock is at a minute and a half, and she has yet to begin eating. More slicing. And then she goes in. Scoop, swallow, sip of water. Scoop, swallow, sip of water. Scoop, swallow, sip of water. Her pace is a waltz: 1-2-3, 1-2-3. Her movements remain even and measured as the fluorescent sauce – which moderators advise her not to touch – drips down her chin. She remains impassive, no sign of a wince, while eviscerating the burrito. The clock hits three minutes. She scoops the final scrapes.
“You gotta get the chunks that spilled off. The chunks,” the moderators say. “The chunks.”
Unfazed, she finishes the plate, raises her hands and, with one continuous movement, sweeps up all the table chunks, the burrito debris, and pours them to her mouth. She opens wide; everything is gone. A new record is set: 3 minutes and 55 seconds.
How does a human acquire (or discover) the skills allowing them to swiftly – and in Schuyler’s case, gracefully – force down a inconceivably spicy burrito, an 8 lb. ice cream sundae, 5 lb. calzones, 30-inch pizzas or 440 chicken wings in mere minutes?
“I would think that our anatomy is just maybe off,” she tells PEOPLE. “Sometimes you see a cat with a sixth toe. Everybody is born a little bit different somehow somewhere.”
Yet Schuyler, who claims she didn’t feel sick after eating 440 wings at 2015’s Wing Bowl 23 and even ordered more wings at the after party, is more impressive than a cat with a sixth toe. At 5″7 and 120 lbs., she defies all preconceived notions of how a competitive eater should look.
“Most people think that a professional eater person – I hate to say it – would be a fat person. Most of us are actually very small,” she says. “Most people either have a really high metabolism, work out a lot, or a combination of both. People think that we’re gross and weird. Most of us have a college education and are very responsible people.”
Despite the superficial qualities that differentiate Schuyler from her peers – she’s a woman and a mom, and wields her power from a petite frame – she is universally recognized for her singular talent.
“Molly is a force to be reckoned with,” Tim “Gravy” Brown, a friend of Schuyler’s, says. “We met her a few years back on the competitive eating circuit. She can fit a whole fist in her mouth, she’s funny and she has a lot of cats.”
Despite being at the top of a field that requires the speedy consumption of food that weighs more than small children, Molly Schuyler is in perfect health.
“I go to the doctor every three to sixth months to get a check-up. There’s been no change since I started eating,” she tells me. “I was at the doctor last week and they were just like, ‘Go home.'”
Her primary source of exercise is running around with her four children – aged 7, 8, 9, 12 – and four cats (all of whom have the proper number of toes.)
Schuyler’s unique skill is not learned or even trainable. You can’t train for an eating event if you don’t have the product, and who has the money or emotional energy to conjure 500 chicken wings? You either have the ability to eat an 8 lb. sundae or you don’t, and Schuyler found out she had it while living in Bellevue, Nebraska, when someone bet her she couldn’t eat a 4.5 lb. burger (“so for me, pretty small.”) She was a vegetarian at the time, but decided to tackle it a year later. The challenge had been gnawing at her.
“It took me 15 minutes” – for Schuyler now, a comically long time – “but I was eating really slowly because I didn’t want to seem gross or nasty. Because it’s like, Oh you’re a girl eating this,” she says. “I tried not to get food on my face. People were checking my purse to see if I’d thrown food in there. And I’m just sitting there like, Really?”
The burger was a gateway. Competitive eaters on Facebook reached out to her to join them in partner challenges, and her career launched from there. Schuyler’s next challenge was a 5 lb. burger, then a 5 lb. calzone, then a 30-inch pizza team challenge.
“I did it because it was free food. I swore myself up and down that I wasn’t going to do any contests. I didn’t want to. I don’t know, I just didn’t care,” she says. “I have a competitive side to me, but I was just like, nah. You care but you don’t care.”
Schuyler had been working at Applebee’s for 7 years, between Texas and Nebraska. (Her family moves frequently because her husband works in the Air Force.) She found herself jumping at the opportunity to travel to events, always searching for the next monster food item to put in her mouth. At Jethro’s in Des Moines, Iowa, she famously beasted the Emmenecker Challenge: Eating a sandwich stuffed with pork tenderloin, Angus steak burger, Texas brisket, applewood bacon, fried cheese, buffalo chicken tenders, cheddar cheese and white cheddar sauce, plus a pound of tater tots, in 2 minutes and 55 seconds. This was her model-discovered-at-the-mall moment: The owner of the restaurant, Bruce Gerleman, invited her to her first official contest, Bacon Fest, in February of 2013. She won. It felt good.
The Des Moines Register reported Gerleman’s reaction to her performance:
“It was…um…unbelievable. There’s…um…not even…I can’t even think of an adjective that describes it…I just….”
Schuyler finally resigned herself to a full-time professional eating career when, soon after, All-Pro Eating asked if she wanted to eat with them. She competed in her first professional contest in August of 2013.
“I won two contests back-to-back and won 800 bucks, and then it dawned on me: I can make money doing this. At the time I never saw my family, because my husband and I worked separate shifts so we didn’t have to pay for daycare,” she says. “I could do this and make more money than working my crummy job. Man, I should be doing this. I was making some mad money.”
Schuyler’s favorite eating competition is the Wing Bowl, which is a very specific kind of event – the only apt adjective to describe it is “Philadelphia.” This Friday at Wing Bowl 2016, she’s determined to take her second crown, bouncing back from last year’s upset, when she placed second to Pat Bertoletti by a margin of four wings. (Schuyler won her first ever Bowl in 2014.)
The Bowl is the nation’s most prestigious – and only – professional wing-eating competition, founded by Philly talk show hosts Angelo Cataldi and Al Morganti in 1993.
“We got the idea when we realized the Eagles would probably never win the Super Bowl,” Cataldi, Sports Radio 94WIP Morning show host, says. “How could we do something that made Super Bowl weekend memorable in Philadelphia? How about an eating contest?”
That debut year, just 200 spectators watched as six competitors downed wings in the lobby of the Wyndham-Franklin Hotel. Now, the fanfare is boozy and hours-long, hosted at the Wells Fargo Center. 30 contestants, thousands of fans, and over hundred provocatively dressed women called Wingettes congregate around 4:00 a.m. to tailgate in the bowels of Wells Fargo. That’s how it starts – imagine how it ends. At 9:00 a.m., thousands of wings later, the champion is crowned, and everyone is drunk, tired and full, ready to venture to the after-party or the office.
“Wing Bowl is literally the biggest, craziest, hold on to your hat, shoes and wallet (because someone will literally take them from you) contest I’ve ever seen and will ever witness in my lifetime,” Brown says. “This year all eyes are on Molly and Deep Dish” – né Patrick Bertoletti – “to see who takes home the crown.”
David R. Inderbitzin, a high school teacher who placed third in 2014 and was disqualified for vomiting the following year, succinctly describes the vibe:
“From about 4 a.m. to 7 a.m. try to picture heavy-set, sweaty men, beer, honking noises, women, bouncy stuff, and the general stank of hundreds of tightly packed bodies,” he says. “As 7 a.m. draws near, you can feel the stadium fill to its 20,000 spectator capacity. From the corridor, you can hear the thunder of Philly’s finest drunkenly calling for the event to begin.”
The actual wing-eating, which begins at 8:00 a.m. after hours of tailgating and pageantry, is divided into three rounds: 14 minutes, 14 minutes, 2 minutes. Whoever eats the most wings over that half hour wins.
To qualify for her first Bowl in 2014, Schuyler had to submit a video stunt – she ate nine pounds of cottage cheese in 114 seconds. She then went on to destroy the competition, winning the crown with 363 wings in 30 minutes, smashing the previous record held by Takeru Kobayashi, who ate 337 in 2012. Schuyler, who at this point had never lost a competition she’d entered, snatched the $22,000 top prize, a gold medal and a championship ring.
Bob Shoudt, another competitive eating titan and close friend of Schuyler’s, met her at WB ’14 and was blown away by her performance.
“Her largest advantage is that she is able ignore all thoughts of choking and swallow large amounts of food at a time,” he says. “Molly can force herself to swallow bigger sizes than would normally be her max. This enables her to get off to a very quick start and also to get out of situations in contests that would normally slow others down.”
Yet in 2015, another stellar showing by Schuyler was bested by a marginally more stellar one: She lost the crown to Bertoletti, achieving her personal best at 440, just shy of his 444 – the new record. The competition was neck-and-neck throughout.
“The adrenaline is crazy. If you could experience that once in your life, it truly is insane,” she says. “Win lose or draw, it’s fun. We’re all a tight-knit community.”
While the Wing Bowl is Schuyler’s favorite competition – she loves the taste of chicken wings – it’s undeniably a male-dominated space. Cataldi prides the Bowl for its ability to give people – “especially young men” – the opportunity to be politically incorrect without judgment.
She comes to party, yes, but also to claim the space and prove what she knows to be true: She’s the best at eating.
“When you’re not eating, we’re all friends,” she says. “But once we’re at the table, it changes. But once we’re away, we’re back again.”
At the table, Schuyler becomes a machine.
“It’s very mechanical. You just go. Sometimes it might take a couple of seconds to figure out what you’re doing. Once you get a rhythm down, you cannot stop. You keep going on because if stop you’re done. You lost. If you stop you’re done.”
Not only does Schuyler never stop, but more crucially: She never vomits.
“I have never got sick of the wings that I’ve eaten. They are one of my favorite foods,” she says. “But I can honestly say I never once got sick during that contest. They’re delicious.”
Cataldi refers to Schuyler as the “LeBron James” of eating, and he’s not wrong.
“She’s the most remarkable contestant we’ve ever had – very few women have ever competed in Wing Bowl. She looks nothing like the typical fat and messy men who compete. She appears to have no limit to how much she can eat,” he says. “She is one of the best competitive eaters in the world because she is able to swallow food faster than anyone we’ve ever seen. She barely chews before swallowing, never gags and has never come close to vomiting, despite the massive quantities she eats. Medical science needs to study her because there is something different about the way she consumes food. She may not be human.”
– Maria Yagoda, @mariayagoda