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Sportsman

My Sportsman: Joey Chestnut

Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 3. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer. For more essays, click here.It was like wondering about a basketball while interviewing LeBron James orforaging for boxing gloves in front of Cassius Clay. Yet at that rooftop bar on July 3, 2006, here's how I saw it: Joey Chestnut seemed to be a rather normal 22-year-old, there needed to be free hot dogs somewhere at this press event, and I -- at the time, a starving SI intern -- still hadn't eaten lunch.

Eventually, I found my frankfurter. And now, having witnessed Chestnut ingest exactly 118 of them over the following two Independence Days, I have also found my 2007 Sportsman of the Year.

Chestnut actually lost the '06 Nathan's Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog-Eating Contest. He ate 52 "HDBs" (hot dogs plus buns) in 12 minutes (yes, 12 minutes). Undefeated speed-eating legend Takeru Kobayashi countered by devouring a then-record 53.75 hot dogs.

This summer, however, Chestnut did something absolutely unprecedented. Faced with Kobayashi's six-year stranglehold over the Coney Island competition, the Californian inhaled an unfathomable 66 HDBs to Kobayashi's 63, becoming the first American to hoist the Mustard Yellow Belt since 1999. No eater had ever crossed the 60-dog threshold before, let alone two of them, and Chestnut emerged as a 231-pound revolution on the 231st Independence Day -- toppling a Japanese dynasty that had long dominated Major League Eating.

Still, he wasn't done. For an encore, Chestnut broke Kobayashi's other record of 97 Krystal hamburgers in eight minutes (yes, eight minutes), consuming 103 such sliders in October.

His only sin, I believe, is that of gluttony. In keeping with the Olympic ideal of the amateur, Chestnut is a civil-engineering major. He works construction and began his consumption career at a burrito contest on a lark.

In fact -- in case anyone feels like decrying America's "culture of obesity" -- Chestnut's messy, aggressive technique is so unpalatable he vanquishes fans' appetites even faster than he does opponents.

But therein, of course, lies the rub. It will always be difficult to stomach the attendant strangeness of a pursuit that demands antacids, not amphetamines. As a dark horse role model to our nation's children, the visibly fit Chestnut remains 100 percent au naturel. Whereas other sports fear the specter of human growth hormone, he merely grows the old-fashioned way.

And Chestnut, the undisputed best eater in the world, has not only conquered hot dogs and burgers, but essentially everything else you've ever tasted: asparagus, chicken wings, grilled cheese, gyoza, jalapeño poppers, pork ribs, pulled pork and, for good measure, Pizza Hut P'Zones.

None of this, I now admit, makes Joey Chestnut anything close to normal. It's funny how the best sportsmen never are.Agree with this selection? Give us your pick for Sportsman here.

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