Student's choking death in pancake contest shows dangers of competitive eating

FAIRFIELD, Conn. — The death of a 20-year-old college student who competed in a pancake-eating contest last week in Connecticut may have been the result of choking or a food allergy, among the many dangers associated with competitive eating.

Caitlin Nelson, a junior majoring in social work, died Sunday at a New York City hospital, three days after participating in the contest at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, The Associated Press reports. Her father was a police officer who died in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center.

"You have a family that lost their very young and very vibrant daughter, and you have the Sacred Heart University community that lost one of their students," Fairfield police Lt. Bob Kalamaras told The Associated Press. “It’s just a tragic accident.”

On Sunday night, several thousand people gathered on the Sacred Heart campus to remember Nelson, a member of the Kappa Delta sorority, according to the AP report. A Mass was followed by an impromptu candlelight vigil.

When Nelson collapsed during the event, a nursing student performed CPR, according to news reports. But she wasn't breathing when police rushed to the scene from nearby traffic duty.

Nelson was taken to a hospital in Bridgeport, Conn., then later transferred to Columbia Medical Center in New York, where she died.

An autopsy is pending to determine Nelson's cause of death. Nelson had multiple food allergies and was choking during the contest, according to a story in the Connecticut Post.

Though deaths in competitive eating are rare, they're not unheard of. In 2014, a 41-year-old South Dakota man choked and later died after a hot dog eating contest on Fourth of July weekend, according to a story in Medical Daily.

A 60-year-old Romanian man died during a sausage-eating contest in 2013, also as a result of choking, Medical Daily reports.

Doctors warn that such contests are dangerous, even for professionals who train for months in advance. "The bottom line is people shouldn’t try this at home," the story says.