TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — It's eighth grade math class at the Roberts Naylor K-8 school in Tucson, and teacher Michelle Lesco is explaining the rate of change.
Lesco could be doing word problems, such as how many in how long a time. Every July 4th, Lesco and the very best competitive eaters take part in the annual Nathan's Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest on Coney Island in New York. It's the Super Bowl of competitive eating.
We first met Lesco more than six years ago at Eegees where she demonstrated her technique. But, it was another Tucson establishment, Lindy's on Fourth, where it all began. This after her friends chickened out on a burger eating contest.
"They said, you eat it," said Lesco. I said, 'Okay. I'll make you look like babies.' So, that's what happened."
Those friends then egged her on to start competing.
"I've been an athlete my whole life so this is just another outlet for that."
And, Lesco decided to go further with her speed eating ability, and her love of food.
"I love wings," Lesco added. I love ribs."
Her go-to food is oysters.
"I really like oysters because they're challenging to eat."
Lesco once ate 33 dozen oysters in eight minutes to win the 2017 World Oyster Eating Championships in New Orleans.
If you're not familiar, Major League Eating, or MLE, is the NFL of professional eating contests. It's been around since 1997. Lesco understands those who can't stomach the sport because they feel it's just too gross.
"It is. It can be. And, watching the contest can be super disgusting. But, I think it's also really beautiful in its own way.
Along the way, Lesco broke the world record for the most mayonnaise eaten in three minutes, which was roughly three and a half jars. And, she recorded the fastest time to eat a bowl of pasta, which was under twenty seven seconds.
One of Lesco's best friends is one of her toughest competitors, seven-time Nathan's Hot Dog Champion Miki Sudo.
"Michelle is incredibly determined," said Sudo. "For someone of her small stature, she has so much heart. And, I think that really shows at the table."
"We're both each others biggest fans," said Lesco. We're always celebrating victories."
The 112-pound Lesco says it's the amateur eaters who have a reversal of fortune, which is the sport's more gentle term for throwing up after a competition.
"You're used to it and you've trained for it," said Lesco. And, you kind of know where your threshold is."
Lesco is determined that others also get to eat. She volunteers, and has done fund raisers for local food banks, as well as those around the country. Lesco won the 2015 Major League Humanitarian of the Year Award. Her charity water initiative, in which people donate money for hot dogs, provides clean water in Africa.
"It's the one thing that kind of helps me train on days when I would not want to eat hot dogs."
However, the sport's biggest prize had eluded her. The July 4th contest is the one for which every competitor is the most hungry to win.
"The Nathan's one is the one where we all put in a ton of effort," said Lesco.
The Nathan's Fourth of July Contest is the one day when even those who don't follow competitive eating turn on ESPN to watch. And, this past July, it was also the one time when Sudo couldn't compete, as she was nine months pregnant. And, if Sudo couldn't win, she was going to root for her best friend to do so instead.
"She believed in me more than I did this year," said Lesco.
"I was really nervous for her because she put a lot of pressure on herself," said Sudo. "I've been in those shoes. Everybody kind of expects you to win, and there's no alternative."
But, bun by bun, Lesco ate 30 and 3/4 hot dogs in ten minutes to win the Women's Nathan's Hot Dog Championship and the winning belt.
"The numbers at Coney Island beat my practice rounds so that was awesome," said Lesco. "It came together somehow."
"The belt suits her," said Sudo.
The winning belt is now proudly displayed in her Tucson classroom.
"It's kind of fun for the students. Every once in a while, someone will want to take a picture with it," said Lesco.
Competitive eating may not be an Olympic sport, but a petite competitor with an Olympic size appetite became the creme de la creme in 2021. Lesco says there is a lot more left on the table.
"I feel like I can keep going for a long time," said Lesco.