MADISON, Wis. - Eric Dahl is the country's top collegiate eater.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison senior fairly regularly chows down tons of food, very fast, on stage, on camera and before throngs of fans and restaurant-goers. Dahl currently holds the number-one ranking within the National Collegiate Competitive Eating Association (NCCEA).
Since 2011, his emergence as a competitive eating star has earned him an online following and enough money to possibly pay for his entire schooling at UW-Madison.
Dahl transferred to the university from Rochester Community and Technical College in Minnesota, his home state. He is set to graduate next month with a degree in computer engineering. According to the Wisconsin State Journal , so far, Dahl's eating achievements have netted him more than $18,000 in prize money and merchandise.
They have also earned him the nickname "Silo."
Embracing the moniker, Dahl sums himself up on his Facebook page in a single sentence: "Just someone who loves food, except I can eat it very fast and in very large quantities."
While acknowledging the sheer entertainment value of competitive eating, Dahl considers it just as much an athletic pursuit as a performance.
"The amount of training and preparation we go through is just like any other elite athlete," he said. "I have no doubt it's a sport. The things that competitive eaters ... put their bodies and their minds through is kind of unfathomable to a lot of people."
Dahl said the mental challenges often exist as internal conversations carried out, literally, at the gut level.
As he explained, "Say you're taking part in a 10-minute contest and five minutes in your stomach starts to say, 'Hey, what are you doing? You're full. What are you trying to do? No more food should come in here.' Sometimes, your body is saying no, but you just have to continue, be persistent and keep pushing."
Over the past three years, as his YouTube channel and NCCEA spotlight confirm, Dahl has devoued seven pounds of pizza in 25 minutes. He has also eaten a six-pound breakfast burrito in under five minutes and a six-pound calzone in less than 17 minutes.
He once scooped and swallowed his way through a 12-ounce can of "muy caliente" chipotle peppers without the aid of any liquids.
The peppers were especially painful, but the toughest eating experience Dahl has endured is known as the Monster 44.
On YouTube, he describes it as a "massive eating challenge known only in people's worst nightmares." In January 2012, at a Dickey's Barbecue Pit outside Minneapolis, he attempted to eat four pounds of meat (including brisket, pulled pork, rib meat and chicken), four pints of sides (including coleslaw, baked beans, mac and cheese and baked potato casserole) and four buttered rolls in under 44 minutes.
Dahl did it - the first to achieve the feat - in roughly 39 minutes.
After racing through the meat and sides, it took him more than 20 minutes to slowly, very slowly, finish off each roll.
"I was nearly at full capacity," he said. "There was a crowd there and the restaurant made it a promotional event. I had to finish. During the last minute or so, I'm really in pain struggling with the rolls. On the video I made, beneath my shirt where my belly is extended down, you can actually see pretty much all the food in my stomach. It's kind of unreal to think about it now."
With images like that, Dahl said he understands why many people have unreal perceptions of the sport and its top participants.
The two most common questions he is asked by individuals outside the competitive eating arena: How are you not fat? And do you eat like this every day?
Dahl, six-foot-three and 220 pounds, is actually a nutrition and fitness geek.
He regularly walks, lifts weights and plays sports such as soccer and hockey. On non-competition days, he works hard to consume no more than 3,100 calories, typically through a mix of spinach, broccoli, fresh fruit, steel-cut oats, almonds and walnuts.
"I try to get a good balance of healthy foods," he said. "It's definitely not like I'm eating 10,000 calories of doughnuts or a competition of pizza every day or even every other day."
He admits edible feats like that do make it hard at times to separate Eric and his eating alter ego "Silo" in the eyes of his friends and fellow students
"Let's just say there are a lot of jokes about how I'm going to eat people out of house and home," he said. "It can be tough at times, but I just take it as part of the whole gig. I really honestly believe that getting as good as I am at competitive eating is one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life."
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