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‘There’s a lot of cash prizes’ in competitive eating, Peter Czerwinski says. ‘They vary between $500 [and] $3,000 for first place.’

Peter Czerwinski can eat a 72-ounce steak in seven minutes. He can slam down 20 sausages in 2½ minutes and plow through nearly three pounds of corned beef and cabbage in three.

With records such as these, it's no wonder the McMaster University master of manufacturing engineering student is a recognized world champion eater.

But as the new documentary The Story of Furious Pete, premiering at Toronto's Hot Docs festival tomorrow, reveals, Mr. Czerwinski is an unlikely member of the international professional eating circuit.

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Nearly eight years ago, at the age of 16, he was admitted to Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children with anorexia nervosa, weighing a mere 120 pounds (54 kilograms) and measuring more than six feet tall (188 centimetres).

What was your mindset at the height of your eating disorder?

Basically, the reason why I did start an eating disorder was because I was lacking control in my life. My father was hospitalized [with a bipolar disorder] my mother was hospitalized [with multiple sclerosis] I was told I might have cancer. All of that was weeks apart or months apart. And being an only child, it was just a lot to handle at once. I felt I needed something to control my life and I turned to food and I just … eventually took it way too far. The less I was eating, the more - I don't know - I felt like I was winning some sort of game. It's hard to explain.

What changed?

Being hospitalized, I saw how bad of a state I was actually in. I realized how sick I was. My heart rate was so low, and I had bad blood work and bad blood pressure, and I realized how much I was actually affecting my parents, both mentally and physically, and my friends around me. I just knew I needed to change, but I didn't know how at first. The first, I would say, five or six months [after leaving the hospital]were a constant struggle. But at one point, I told myself, 'You know, if I keep doing this, I'm just going to waste away my life.' I started talking to people on online communities, forums and stuff like that, being really open with my problems. I knew what I needed to do, I just had to do it, and eventually I did get better.

Is having an eating disorder for you something that will be a lifelong battle?

For some people it is. I don't feel like it's really affected me. I mean, I do competitive eating now just because I'm really good at it. I don't do it because I necessarily enjoy it, and I don't do it every day. It's not like what people think sometimes - that I went from one extreme to other. On the contrary, I just randomly discovered a talent and went with it.

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So how did you discover that talent?

It was after a night of drinking with the guys about three years ago. We went out for a greasy breakfast and we each ordered some massive dish at this restaurant, and I managed to polish off whatever I had before any of my buddies got through a quarter of theirs. As a joke, one of my buddies just asked, 'Hey, are you hungry? Do you want to order some more?' and I was like, 'Yeah, sure, why not?' My buddy asked the waitress what the record was in the restaurant, and it was just two of those plates in an hour. I ended up doubling that record. Ever since then, I just started doing restaurant challenges, doing random stunts, and I put all my videos on YouTube, and that's how I got recognized to join the pro circuit.

Is there some sort of technique to competitive eating? How do you train for this?

My biggest training device is fluid. I drink a lot of fluid on a regular basis. Like on a daily basis, I drink between six to 10 litres of water, depending on my activity level. Before a competition, I'll up that, like, 150 to 200 per cent sometimes just so that I do increase stomach capacity. You don't really train with food.

What about during the competition itself?

Usually, I'm just in the zone. People say my head goes up and down when I'm eating all the time, and I don't even realize that. Yeah, it's weird. It's a real mind over matter at [a certain]point because you feel full sometimes and you just have to keep pushing, and you feel like you're about to choke and you just have to force either more food down to push the other food that's choking you or drink more fluid. There's a lot of times when you think you shouldn't be eating more and you just push yourself.

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That doesn't sound very comfortable.

It all depends on what you're eating. If there are meat products, it's really not that bad. It doesn't affect you that much. But if it's a really creamy and saucy food, then it can really affect you. Sometimes you're going to throw up after a contest, which is natural because it's not normal to eat that much. … Other times, you just feel good and you just have to sleep it off.

Do you ever worry about how it might affect your health?

Not really. I have a pretty damn good diet on a regular basis. I eat very well, I exercise regularly. I don't do this all the time.

Are there some foods that you're better at eating than others?

I think the one thing I'm not good at eating is anything with mayo. I mean, I can still eat it but I absolutely despise mayo, so it really ruins my mood. It's the taste, the texture, everything.

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But are you even tasting the food?

For the most part you're not. You don't do it for taste, you're doing it for competition - the sport, as they call it.

What kind of reward do you get from winning a competition?

There's a lot of cash prizes. They vary between $500 [and]$3,000 for first place. It's not bad if you think about it - $3,000 you can make in 10 minutes of eating? That sounds good. But then, too bad they're not every day, right?

Q&A: director George Tsioutsioulas

Toronto director George Tsioutsioulas delved into the world of competitive eaters for his documentary The Story of Furious Pete, produced with Igal Hecht. He came away fascinated, inspired and a little revolted.

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How did you get into this subject?

I went to my first eating contest a couple summers ago. … I saw maybe 14 or 15 competitive eaters, just shovelling massive amounts of food into their mouths, and it just did not seem humanly possible to me. There were people who were 400 or 500 pounds (227 kilograms) there, but the person who won was a woman who was 105 pounds (48 kilograms). So I just thought, 'Wow.'

Did you discover any secrets to competitive eating?

I guess everybody's got their own sort of thing that they do, their own superstitions. Most times you'll see people dunking their food in water, which is pretty gross. But I guess the point of that is it makes the food softer so it goes down faster. … Pete's very different from the rest of the competitors with his style. He's a wild animal.

In what way is he different?

I've seen some people that seem to be there just for the free food. They're kind of just taking their time, but with Pete, it's obvious that he's there to win. One time he almost bit his finger off.

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Have you ever been compelled to try it yourself?

No, I'm a wuss. I hate feeling full. I hate that feeling more than anything.

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