For Ian Hickman, it is always about the free meal.
Hickman, a competitive eater from Sterling, was crowned Clara’s National Pierogie Eating Champion Saturday, June 2, at Bethel Park High School, in Pittsburgh, Pa. The 24-year-old ate 51 pierogies, or stuffed dumplings, in five minutes.
"I view it as a sport, like football," Hickman said. "You have to stay on your toes, you always want to have your game on."
Hickman signed up for his first challenge when he was a middle-school student in Chattanooga, Tenn. After he won the challenge, and saw his name on a billboard in flashing lights, he signed up for a few more. Soon, he was hooked.
"I was getting free meals, just for eating a lot," Hickman said.
So, he contacted Arnie Chapman from the Association of Competitive Eaters, to get some tips for a local burger contest.
"I came in second, beat some pros and I’ve been doing it ever since," Hickman said.
THE ASSOCIATION of Independent Competitive Eaters is an organization made up of men and women, like Hickman who are interested in competitive eating as a sport and entertainment.
Carey Poehlmann is a competitive eater from Willow Grove, Pa.
Poehlmann, who is also affiliated with the Association of Independent Competitive Eaters, competed against Hickman not too long ago at a strawberry festival in Delaplane, Va.
"His biggest strength is intelligence," Poehlmann said. "We talk a lot before a competition about the food we are going to eat, plan strategies and look at it from every angle."
Hickman typically spends a couple of days before a competition training his body to feel full. He drinks a lot of water and eats a lot of fruits and vegetables.
"I have to get mentally and physically used to the discomfort," he said. "I like French-style green beans. I can just shovel them in."
Challenges, like Clara’s National Pierogie Eating Championship, have taken Hickman across the country and back. He has competed in metropolitan cities like Los Angeles and Boston, and small towns in Arkansas and Connecticut.
"I’ll do anything," he said, "just for the experience."
"There is a lot of camaraderie at the events," Poelhmann said. "Everyone is there to have a good time. It isn't just about winning. The best part of the competition is the announcing of the totals. It is great when records are broken and hearing your name if you won."
Hickman has also placed in chicken wing and corn on the cob competitions and took first at a local watermelon-eating contest, where he consumed nine-and-a-half pounds of the fruit.
"First and foremost, it’s a free meal," Hickman said. "Sure there’s cash prizes and I’ve gone all over the place, but the number one thing is, it’s free food."
WITH MORE THAN 20 competitions under his belt, Hickman said he is always looking for his next challenge.
The Sterling resident said he enjoys competing at the local level and is always looking for local restaurant challenges.
"I like to claim my area, put my hand in everything," Hickman said.
Last month, Hickman challenged his four friends to an ice-cream-eating contest at Ben and Jerry’s in Sterling.
Hickman ate a Vermonster, a 20-scoop sundae with four handles of hot fudge, four bananas, ten scoops of chopped walnuts, one fudge brownie, three cookies, two scoops of a variety of toppings and whipped cream, faster than his four friends ate one.
On Saturday, July 28, Hickman will face his four friends again at Br Frozen Custard and Sweets in Woodbridge, Va. The challenge: To eat a six-pound ice cream sundae in 30 minutes.
"I’ll keep doing this for awhile. I work a 9 to 5. This breaks things up," Hickman said. "Gives me something to look forward to on the weekends."