It's a Saturday morning in a quaint and sunny corner of Orange County, and I'm sitting down with Damon Wells for a purse-sized omelet breakfast of champions.
Thirty seconds later — thirty grunting and messy seconds — breakfast is over.
"I'm still hungry," he says, patting his taut midsection. "I'm always hungry."
You want an athlete with fire in his belly? This guy once competitively ate 19 burritos in 10 minutes.
"You're either completely sickened by it or completely intrigued by it," he says.
You want an athlete with intestinal fortitude? His Sunday training brunches at Souplantation last more than two hours and include a dozen plates of salad, a dozen muffins, six apples, three baked potatoes two bowls of chili and two bowls of ice cream.
"Eventually the restaurant workers will look at me like, 'Really?'" he says.
You want an athlete who never chokes? Well, OK, once. While trying to win a bet from friends during lunch, he gagged on a pastrami sandwich he was trying to eat in less than two minutes, momentarily putting his passion into perspective.
"I'm like, whoa, man. I don't want to die eating a sandwich," he says.
Meet Damon "The Omen" Wells, an accountant from Yorba Linda who may literally be the Southland's guttiest athlete. He is the world's 22nd-ranked competitive eater, a recent 12th-place finisher in the celebrated Nathan's Hot Dog Eating contest, and is currently training for a $5,000 gyoza-eating contest on Aug. 20 in Little Tokyo.
"The key to eating gyoza is don't bite off more than you can chew," he says.
Yes, he said that. Yes, he is for real. There is a biohazard symbol tattoo on the back of his neck, a stud under his lower lip, and a gleam in his eye as the 33-year-old talks about his painful and ill-perceived craft.
"No, it's not worth it," he says with a strange smile. "To be frank with you, I don't know why I do it."
It's certainly worth it to somebody, as the International Federation of Competitive Eating — yes, there is such a thing — will sponsor more than 80 events, with this year featuring more than $500,000 in prize money. As an official Major League Eater, Wells is sanctioned to competitively chow on such delicacies as wings in Buffalo, tamales in Texas, and poutine in Toronto.
"We are getting more athletic eaters now, so the popularity is greater than ever," said George Shea, chairman of the IFOCE. "The spectacle of the food quantity blows people's minds, and the dramatic power of the competitions surprises them."
Already Wells' summer has been a success as he made his first appearance in the Super Bowl of competitive eating, the Nathan's contest on Coney Island on July 4, a contest watched by nearly 2 million households on ESPN. He chowed down "only" 23 hot dogs in 10 minutes, finishing far behind the 62-dog-devouring Joey Chestnut, but he says he has only just begun.
Says Wells: "I will be back."
Says his roommate Steve McClelland: "I don't judge, but I have to admit that some of my friends think the whole thing is pretty darn gross."
Lots of folks are probably thinking this entire story is pretty gross, and wondering why it is even on the Sports page, and I initially agreed. But upon closer inspection, seriously, if a drinking game can be a sport (curling), why can't an eating game be a sport?
The muscular 5-foot-7, 165-pound Wells looks like an athlete and says competitive eating forces him to train like one, with workouts that are part weird and part scary. In the 14-year history of the IFOCE, there has never been an injury worse than a broken tooth, but doctors agree that the long-term effect of stomach stretching cannot be good.
Yet Wells eats on.
He loosens his jaws by chewing seven sticks of Big Red gum on each side of his mouth for two hours at a time. He stretches his belly by drinking two gallons of water or Gatorade in six minutes, risking the danger of water intoxication. He does occasional speed eating sessions with burritos or hot dogs to help him overcome the sensation of taste fatigue.
Then, with a belly that often feels empty because of a strict six-day protein diet, he expands his capacity one more time with a weekly Sunday feast. His favorite spot is brunch at El Torito, where he will spend three hours eating 15 plates of food, so much that a waiter once tried to shoo him away so other customers could have a chance.
"Have you ever eaten so much you were miserable?" he says. "That's me every Sunday. For five or six hours, I feel like I'm going to pop."
And for what? Fame? Fortune? Neither. Wells has been recognized in public exactly twice in his life, he's never won more than $600 at an event, and, even in a meteoric two-year career, he says he's barely broken even.
"I love to challenge myself," he says. "It's more for me than anyone else."
It could be worse. He says he's never vomited from eating. He says he's rarely even had heartburn. He appears to be in better shape than most of the baseball players I've seen this summer. After being inspired by a televised eating show, Wells says he simply turned a lifelong passion for food into a competitive outlet and wonders what is so wrong about that.
"People love to say how stupid it is, but they are all intrigued," he says.
And, of course, Damon Wells can always count on his ultimate reward for eating 128 gyoza, or four pounds of chicken wings, or a hamburger the size of a small bowling ball.
The man whose eyes will never be bigger than his stomach shrugs and says: "I always leave room for dessert."