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UTRGV student vying for Nathan’s hot dog eating champion title this Fourth of July

UTRGV junior kinesiology major Kassie Zapata ate 11 hot dogs in 10 minutes during a qualifier in March in San Antonio, and won a spot to compete in Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest on Coney Island in New York. She is shown here celebrating that qualifier win. This Fourth of July, Zapata will be among more than a dozen female competitive eaters vying for the yellow and green championship belt, which comes with a $10,000 prize. (UTRGV Courtesy Photo)

By Melissa Vasquez

EDINBURG, TEXAS – JUNE 27, 2016 – Eleven hot dogs. Ten minutes. One UTRGV student.

It could have been a recipe for heartburn. Instead, it earned Kassie Zapata a spot to compete in one of the most unique sporting competitions in the world – Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest at Coney Island in New York.

This Fourth of July, UTRGV student Zapata, from Donna, will be among more than a dozen female competitive eaters competing to win the yellow and green championship belt that comes with a $10,000 prize. 

The competition airs the same day on ESPN, ESPN 2 and ESPN 3.

For Zapata – who at 20 is among the youngest competitive eaters at the 2016 event – this is an item to check off her bucket list.

“I knew I wanted to do a hot dog eating contest, but Nathan’s was a plus because I love Nathan’s hot dogs,” she said.

A newbie to competitive eating, Zapata was encouraged by her family to participate in a March 19, 2016, Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Qualifying Circuit event, hosted by Major League Eating and held in San Antonio, Texas. Ten qualifying events were held throughout the country to find the top female and male finishers for each location, who in turn will compete in the competition’s 100th anniversary.

Entering the San Antonio event was a last-minute decision, Zapata said, and she went into with a “let’s see what happens” attitude. Her family Googled “hot dog competitions in Texas” and found the Nathan’s qualifying event.

“They told me, ‘You eat a lot, so you should join a hot dog eating contest and see if you would win,’” she said.

Zapata – a UTRGV junior kinesiology major with a minor in math who hopes to one day teach math and coach young athletes – is still amazed that she was victorious in her first-ever eating competition, and won by half a hot dog.

Even after consuming 11 hot dogs, Zapata was still hungry and could have eaten more, had she been given more time. She beat out six-year competitive eating veteran Mary Bowers, who also will be competing in the Coney Island contest.

Major League Eating, the organization that oversees all professional eating contests across the globe, has ranked Zapata No. 43 in the world, and according to the website, is “the first Donnarian to ever grace the Nathan’s Famous stage at Coney Island on the Fourth of July.”

So, how is Zapata training for the big day?

No strategies, no tricks, she said. She just plans to have fun and eat as many hot dogs as she can in the 10 minutes allotted.

“I will just have to eat a lot of hot dogs,” she said. “I did not train before. It was more like a let’s-see-where-this-goes type of thing. And then I won.

“This time around, I still didn’t train. I’m just eating a lot to make sure that I never get full, because I never get full.”

And while she has not trained, she does admit she probably will practice right before she goes.

To win, Zapata will have to out eat last year’s female champion, Miki Sudo, who consumed 38 hot dogs and will be back at Nathan’s Famous to defend her title.

More than seven family members are headed to Coney Island with her on Friday, July 1, to cheer her on, so she is not nervous.

She mainly plans to enjoy her moment in the spotlight and do what she does best – eat.

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