Senior outlasts freshman in eating contest

Beck Diefenbach

By Whitney Blair Wyckoff

Two men stood poised over their Styrofoam bowls, and, like Olympic divers standing over the pool before a crucial dive, they warily eyed their challenge: A large “gotta have it” sized bowl of sweet cream-flavored ice cream. One was a seasoned food-eating contest veteran. The other, a freshman rookie.

The Illini Media Company, who owns the Daily Illini, held an ice-cream eating contest on Saturday in front of the Illini Media Building, located at 512 E. Green St., in Champaign.

It was the final round of the contest. Allen Tran, senior in ACES, had won the first qualifying round against four contestants, and freshman in LAS Kevin McNerney won the second qualifying round against four different contestants.

Now, the two titans were facing off, both fighting for the prize: two tickets to the upcoming Illini football game and an ice cream cake from Cold Stone Creamery.

Tran had been working at a restaurant, RADIO Maria, 119 N. Walnut St. in Champaign, when he heard about the contest a half-hour before it began.

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“I had to finish work early to get here in time,” Tran said before the competition began. He hadn’t prepared at all. In fact, he’d eaten only hours before.

Weighing a lean 140 pounds and living on a diet of mostly salad, Tran may seem like an unlikely competitor. But he is hardly foreign to eating competitions. He earned the title of National Cheese-Eating Champion at last year’s Arthur Cheese Festival in Arthur, Ill.

“My specialty is dairy,” joked the food science and human nutrition major.

But Tran said that he didn’t want to jinx himself, so he tried to keep his ego in check. “I hope someone doesn’t come out of nowhere and kick my butt,” Tran said.

As the promotions team prepared for the second round, dark clouds began looming overhead. The air was dense.

The next contestants lined up. This round was composed of a younger crowd. They donned bibs and leaned over the “love it,” or medium-size, bowls of Cold Stone ice cream.

Despite the humidity and the threat of rain, a congregation of about 20 onlookers gathered around the table.

The contestants devoured the ice cream, but toward the middle of the competition, the sky exploded with rain.

“Oh no,” said Jim Peterson, freshman in LAS, as the rain soaked the table.

But the contestants ate through the sudden downpour. Tension mounted as each contestant came upon the home stretch.

McNerney pulled ahead and finished first.

While McNerney celebrated his win, it hit him that he’d have to compete again – and this time, there would be even more ice cream.

But inside, McNerney was formulating a game plan.

“I don’t want him to hear this,” McNerney said as he smiled and turned away from Tran, who was standing 10 feet behind him. “I’m not going to chew it. When you put ice cream on teeth, you’re more prone to brain freeze,” he said.

After about 10 minutes, the rain had cleared and the contestants and onlookers filed back outside. The competitors were ready, and the contest resumed.

The contestants plunged into the larger ice cream bowls. Tran hopped excitedly as he slurped the ice cream straight from the bowl, while McNerney shoveled heaps of ice cream into his mouth. Midway through, McNerney’s spoon broke, but he kept at it.

When both finished at nearly the same time, the promotions team ran to the table to make the call. After a few minutes of deliberation, Tran held his empty bowl over his head like a trophy and the crowd cheered. Tran had won.

He raised his ice cream-covered hand. McNerney gave him a high five, splattering melted ice cream everywhere.

Even though Tran won the prize, the promotion team also gave McNerney football tickets for being a close second.

McNerney attributed the loss to his spoon breaking mid-competition. “Metal spoons would have been nice,” he said.

Tran was happy with the win, but his motivation had little to do with the prizes. “It’s really about the ice cream and the title,” he said. “This is my first time eating Cold Stone ice cream. I could have gone for more.”