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17 Secrets of a Competitive Eating Champion

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Most of the time, Yasir Salem is a mild-mannered marketing director. But on weekends, he regularly pulls off incredible gastrointestinal feats as a championship-winning competitive eater. And it all started as a joke. “I was watching the Nathan’s contest in 2008, and I thought, ‘Wow, all I have to do is eat a bunch of hot dogs and I can be on ESPN?’" he says with a laugh. "I soon learned that it's not that easy.”

But Salem stuck to it, and these days, he's a seasoned competitive eater, ranked #10 in the world. We couldn’t resist asking him for a few tricks of the trade.

1. THERE’S NO MANUAL ...

When Salem wanted to get started, he didn’t hire a trainer. First, he turned to the internet, and then, as he began to compete, got advice from other competitive eaters. “If you enter enough contests, you get friendly with them, and they’ll share tidbits of how they make things happen,” he says.

2. ... BUT THERE IS A SEASON—AND A PROFESSIONAL ASSOCIATION.

Major League Eating puts on some 70 contests every year, including July 4th’s Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest. Most contests take place during the warm months—exactly the opposite time from when most people want to be eating pounds and pounds of food. “It does sound counterintuitive, but these eating contests are shows for people to come and watch,” Salem says. “They're generally outside.” Which means that the eaters are susceptible to the weather and, if they can’t keep cool, will eat less than normal. “Last year, Nathan’s was brutal,” Salem says. The women, who competed first, let the men know that it was very, very hot on the stage, so “we iced ourselves down. That’s why the numbers didn’t go so low for the men’s last year. We got that insight from the women and we were preparing for the worst. If you look at the tapes, you’ll notice a lot of us had wet shirts because we were trying to stay cool.”

3. WATER IS A COMPETITIVE EATER’S MOST IMPORTANT TRAINING TOOL.

It’s probably not a surprise that the typical human stomach can’t hold the 30 or more hot dogs that competitive eaters routinely wolf down. After watching that first Nathan’s competition, Salem decided he was going to try, right then, to eat 20 hot dogs and buns. “I did three or four and I was like, ‘I’m done,’” he says. “I couldn’t continue.” He needed to increase his stomach capacity, which he did by drinking large amounts of water. Salem worked his way up to a gallon, which he can now drink in under a minute—and does so almost daily when he’s preparing for a competition.

“You have to go up and up and up,” he says. “It’s conditioning. Most people can work their way up to a gallon in a month. A gallon weighs eight pounds. In the majority of contests, we’re not consuming that amount of capacity. Joey Chestnut will consume maybe 5 or 6 pounds. If you do a gallon of water, you’re competitive with most of the eaters.” (He stresses that this strategy is for the pros—you definitely shouldn’t try it at home!)

Two or three times a week, Salem steams 6 to 8 pounds of broccoli and cauliflower, adds “a couple of pounds of sauerkraut,” and eats it in about 20 minutes—“at a fast pace, but not in contest mode”—then washes it down with a gallon of water.

4. THEY WORK OUT THEIR JAW MUSCLES.

When you’re in an eating contest, you don’t want your jaw to get tired. Some competitive eaters will chew up to six pieces of gum at a time to strengthen their jaw muscles, Salem says, but he has another method: He chews on silicone tubes that doctors recommend for patients who’ve had jaw surgery or for kids with autism who need to chew on things. “I bought three of these things in different strengths and I chew on them two or three times a week or so,” he says.

5. BREATHING CONTROL IS HUGE.

Though he now regularly competes in triathlons, a couple of years ago, Salem didn’t know how to swim—and learning how helped to up his competitive eating game, taking him from 20 hot dogs to 25. “In swimming, there’s a rhythm to breathing,” he says. “You have to understand you’re going to breathe every two or three strokes. If you don’t stick to that, you’ll throw yourself off. There’s a similar rhythm in eating: Maybe you breathe every hotdog, or every two hot dogs. But you need to figure out your rhythm and stick to it. Otherwise you’ll get out of breath and you’ll have to take a step back and relax, and it takes a few seconds to get your heart rate down. When you’re talking like 25, 30 hot dogs, and you’re breaking every three or four hot dogs for 30 seconds, that’s 30 percent of the contest. You don’t have that time to waste.”

6. GETTING IT ON VIDEO HELPS, TOO.

Salem videotapes both his practice sessions and his competitions to analyze his hand speed and technique. “Lots of times, eaters—myself included—think we’re going a lot faster than we actually are,” he says. “When you videotape yourself, you reveal what’s actually happening. Am I chewing too long? Am I messing with the hot dog too long? Should I be breaking [the food] faster? It’s a lot of analysis and just tweaking.” He’ll often put his video side-by-side with another competitive eater to see how he can improve. Mastering hand speed and efficiency is a huge part of being successful. “If your hand speed is too fast, you’re not swallowing fast enough, then you’re just creating a traffic jam in your mouth,” he says. Still, “you have to master the entire process before you work on that.”

7. THEY GET HELP FROM HYPNOTHERAPISTS AND BIOFEEDBACK SPECIALISTS.

A couple of years ago, Salem found that he was having a mental block in competitions that was preventing him from being the best he could be. So he went to a hypnotherapist, and discovered that part of the reason he was getting hung up was because he was afraid of vomiting. “I had to get over that fear,” Salem says. “My hypnotherapist put lots of positive things in my head to help me figure it out.”

Because of the sessions, Salem made the decision to go to a biofeedback specialist, who gave him exercises to do that would help him suppress his gag reflex. “A lot of the suppression training has to do with brushing my tongue really far back, every morning and night,” he explains. “It’s part of my daily routine. I don’t even think about it anymore.”

There are other methods that competitive eaters use, too, including meditation. “Badlands Booker swears by it,” Salem says. “He’ll meditate just to overall have strength over his mind and to keep anxiety down. Just like in sports—you can be top of your game physically, but if you get anxious, and your heart races out of control, then you’re a mess. Same thing happens here.”

8. THE BEST COMPETITIVE EATERS ARE IN SHAPE.

You’ll notice that most competitive eaters are very fit—and that’s because they have to be. “If you look at the top eaters—like the top 15 or 20—they’re all in shape, with very rare exceptions,” Salem says. “The fittest eaters have low body fat percentage and work out a lot. I’ve continually worked out and decreased my body fat over the past years and I’ve seen my performance increase from 20 to 25, and now I’m at 30 hot dogs.”

There is a theory about why it is that skinnier people make better competitive eaters. “It’s called the fat belt theory,” Salem says. “It started off as a joke, but there’s a lot of truth to it. If you think about it, there’s only a finite amount of space [in your abdomen]. You’re constrained by your ribcage—that’s all the space that you have to work with. If you have fat, it can hinder your ability to eat and fill the space up.” Though it is just a theory, Salem says there is anecdotal evidence to support it; Badlands Booker, who at one point weighed 400 pounds, saw his totals go from 25 dogs and buns to 40 when he dropped some weight (and then saw the totals drop back down when he gained the weight back). “Certainly no one can argue that being fat is a competitive advantage,” Salem says. “There’s nothing you can gain out of it.”

9. THEY SPECIALIZE.

Eaters compete in categories: Counting foods, weighed foods, technique, and capacity. “Counting foods are like hot dogs. Either you eat a hot dog and bun or you didn’t,” Salem says. “Wings we do by weight—because you might only eat half of it—so they weigh the bucket before and after.”

The hardest category to compete in is capacity, which uses foods like chili. “If you’re consuming something that’s more fluid, it’s purely about people that have trained a lot for capacity level,” Salem says. “Joey Chestnut can do two gallons of chili, which weighs more than water. So if he’s doing two gallons of chili, we’re talking in the neighborhood of 19 to 20 pounds. Capacity is the hardest contest to win against someone who has a lot of experience. Nobody new is ever able to win a capacity contest unless they're some kind of freak.”

The best bet for a novice competitive eater is technique, where foods like wings, corn on the cob, and oysters are used. “It’s purely about how fast can you do it,” Salem says. “Have you developed an innovation where you can strip the meat a lot faster than everybody else? That’s where there’s real opportunity for someone who is a newcomer to break in.”

Within those categories, there’s further specialization—sweet, spicy, and salty foods. Some eaters are better at one than at the others. “Jalapenos are very rough,” Salem says. “I don’t like spicy foods in general—I don’t have a tolerance for it, and I'm not good at it. The intense heat ... I just get sweaty. But I’m pretty good at sweet contests.”

10. COMFORTABLE CLOTHES ARE A MUST.

“You know when you go to Thanksgiving and everything feels tight? You don’t want that,” Salem says. “I wore spandex two years ago and all the guys made fun of me, so I don’t do that anymore. I wear shorts that have an elastic waistband. I usually wear a size medium shirt, but in competition, I might wear like a large. You just wanna be as loose as possible. You don’t want to think about the constriction of your clothes.”

11. THEY DO EAT ON COMPETITION DAYS...

Attention, everyone who fasts on Thanksgiving Day: You’re doing it wrong. Even competitive eaters have something in their stomachs before they go into a competition. “When you wake up in the morning, you haven’t eaten for 7 or 8 hours,” Salem says. “You’re tired. More than anything, you want the energy to go into the contest. You have to think of it like a sport. You can’t go into a marathon without having some food in your stomach because you need the energy to go through it.”

To prepare, Salem cuts down on solid foods two days before the contest; instead, he eats shakes, vegetables blended into soups, and soft fruits like bananas and oranges. “It’s not just about your stomach; it’s about your intestines,” he says. “You want to empty out your entire space as much as possible.” The morning of a contest, he’ll drink a strong cup of coffee—“to make sure I’m clear”—then go on an hour-long run. After a shower, he’ll drink one last gallon of water, which he’ll pee out completely before the contest, and have a piece of fruit. “That’s enough to get my body in the mode,” he says. “Caffeine starts me up and clears me out; the water hydrates me; and that piece of fruit or a smoothie is enough to carry me through 5 or 6 hours before.” He’ll also pre-game some fiber gummies to help him digest later.

12. ...BUT THEY NEVER SIT DOWN.

“When you’re sitting, you’re half-way compressed,” Salem says. “It’s the worst situation to be in. Standing up helps open up the space and you can move around. You don’t wanna squander all the training that you've done over the past few months by limiting your space by being leaned over.”

13. LIQUIDS ARE LUBRICANTS, NOT THIRST-QUENCHERS.

“It’s just a way to get things down into your stomach, and quickly,” Salem says. “You don’t wanna overdo it. Liquid takes up space and it weighs quite a bit.” If dunking is allowed—as it is at Nathan’s—he’ll dunk the whole hot dog bun before eating it. But dunking isn’t always permitted, and picking up a cup to sip wastes time, cuts down on hand speed and efficiency, and usually causes an eater to consume more liquid—so when he can’t dunk, Salem has to be mindful of those things.

Depending on what the food in a contest is, competitors will have different liquid options: Whole fat milk, which quells the effects of capsaicin, for spicy food; sugar-free flavored drinks or water for salty foods; and coffee or tea for sweet foods (Salem prefers decaf tea). Alcohol isn’t permitted, and soda is a bad choice. “You don’t want anything with carbonation because that’s going to start bubbling up in your stomach," Salem says. "You’ll have to deal with burping every few minutes."

Temperature is also really important. “When you drink cold water, your throat tends to tense up,” Salem says. “You don’t want to introduce any kind of stress. So we’ll use warm water, around body temperature.”

14. CONDIMENTS ARE A NO-NO.

They all take up space that might otherwise be occupied by whatever you’re eating. Salem specifically says that wannabe competitive eaters should avoid mustard, which, when combined with warm water, can lead to some … unpleasant results. “If you down a lot of it, it’s like castor oil,” Salem says. “I was in a contest with this guy—a total amateur. There was Nathan's Spicy Mustard and Ketchup sitting up front for branding purposes, and he was putting it all over his hot dogs. All the sudden he spit it up. It hit the back of my head, which is shaved, and it started burning! It was a mess.”

15. THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS PACING YOURSELF.

Competitive eaters are not Fletcherizing. In fact, they're doing pretty much the opposite, chewing only two or three times before swallowing. “You’re just getting it to the point of getting it down,” Salem says. In a Nathan’s contest, each plate has five hot dogs and buns, three on the bottom and two on top. He separates them, grabs two hot dogs and breaks them in half, and starts eating. Meanwhile, with his other hand, he’s dunking a hot dog bun in the cup of water and, as he eats that, he breaks two more hot dogs. And he does this, over and over, as fast as he can. “It’s a race against your body,” he says. “After minute three, you start to slow down. If you’re pacing the same number throughout, then something is really wrong. You’re not going to get a very high number. You need to just go balls to the wall and then cruise as best as you can to the finish.”

16. CHIPMUNKING IS WHAT WINS COMPETITIONS.

“The pros know that whatever you get into your mouth before regulation is over counts,” Salem says. “But you have to swallow it within 30 seconds after. So you should actively try and fill every corner of your mouth; it’s called ‘chipmunking.’ Don’t overdo it—you still have to be able to swallow it in 30 seconds—but you will be at a serious disadvantage if you don’t do it. It’s the difference between winning and losing.”

17. EATERS DECIDE HOW THEY’LL BREAK A TIE.

Unbelievable though it may seem, sometimes competitive eaters do tie—and in that event, they’ll decide the terms of the eat-off, usually quantity of food or time. “It’s usually better to just do time," Salem says. "If we hit our max in regulation—10 minutes—and we talk about eating five more hot dogs, it might not happen. So it’s usually better to choose time. That time is going to happen no matter what.”

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15 Heartwarming Facts About Mister Rogers
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Though Mister Rogers' Neighborhood premiered 50 years ago, Fred Rogers remains an icon of kindness for the ages. An innovator of children’s television, his salt-of-the-earth demeanor and genuinely gentle nature taught a generation of kids the value of kindness. In celebration of the groundbreaking children's series' 50th anniversary, here are 15 things you might not have known about everyone’s favorite “neighbor.”

1. HE WAS BULLIED AS A CHILD.

According to Benjamin Wagner, who directed the 2010 documentary Mister Rogers & Me—and was, in fact, Rogers’s neighbor on Nantucket—Rogers was overweight and shy as a child, and often taunted by his classmates when he walked home from school. “I used to cry to myself when I was alone,” Rogers said. “And I would cry through my fingers and make up songs on the piano.” It was this experience that led Rogers to want to look below the surface of everyone he met to what he called the “essential invisible” within them.

2. HE WAS AN ORDAINED MINISTER.

Rogers was an ordained minister and, as such, a man of tremendous faith who preached tolerance wherever he went. When Amy Melder, a six-year-old Christian viewer, sent Rogers a drawing she made for him with a letter that promised “he was going to heaven,” Rogers wrote back to his young fan:

“You told me that you have accepted Jesus as your Savior. It means a lot to me to know that. And, I appreciated the scripture verse that you sent. I am an ordained Presbyterian minister, and I want you to know that Jesus is important to me, too. I hope that God’s love and peace come through my work on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

3. HE RESPONDED TO ALL HIS FAN MAIL.

Responding to fan mail was part of Rogers’s very regimented daily routine, which began at 5 a.m. with a prayer and included time for studying, writing, making phone calls, swimming, weighing himself, and responding to every fan who had taken the time to reach out to him.

“He respected the kids who wrote [those letters],” Heather Arnet, an assistant on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2005. “He never thought about throwing out a drawing or letter. They were sacred."

According to Arnet, the fan mail he received wasn’t just a bunch of young kids gushing to their idol. Kids would tell Rogers about a pet or family member who died, or other issues with which they were grappling. “No child ever received a form letter from Mister Rogers," Arnet said, noting that he received between 50 and 100 letters per day.

4. ANIMALS LOVED HIM AS MUCH AS PEOPLE DID.

It wasn’t just kids and their parents who loved Mister Rogers. Koko, the Stanford-educated gorilla who understands 2000 English words and can also converse in American Sign Language, was an avid Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood watcher, too. When Rogers visited her, she immediately gave him a hug—and took his shoes off.

5. HE WAS AN ACCOMPLISHED MUSICIAN.

Though Rogers began his education in the Ivy League, at Dartmouth, he transferred to Rollins College following his freshman year in order to pursue a degree in music (he graduated Magna cum laude). In addition to being a talented piano player, he was also a wonderful songwriter and wrote all the songs for Mister Rogers' Neighborhood—plus hundreds more.

6. HIS INTEREST IN TELEVISION WAS BORN OUT OF A DISDAIN FOR THE MEDIUM.

Rogers’s decision to enter into the television world wasn’t out of a passion for the medium—far from it. "When I first saw children's television, I thought it was perfectly horrible," Rogers told Pittsburgh Magazine. "And I thought there was some way of using this fabulous medium to be of nurture to those who would watch and listen."

7. KIDS WHO WATCHED MISTER ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD RETAINED MORE THAN THOSE WHO WATCHED SESAME STREET.

A Yale study pitted fans of Sesame Street against Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood watchers and found that kids who watched Mister Rogers tended to remember more of the story lines, and had a much higher “tolerance of delay,” meaning they were more patient.

8. ROGERS’S MOM KNIT ALL OF HIS SWEATERS.

If watching an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood gives you sweater envy, we’ve got bad news: You’d never be able to find his sweaters in a store. All of those comfy-looking cardigans were knitted by Fred’s mom, Nancy. In an interview with the Archive of American Television, Rogers explained how his mother would knit sweaters for all of her loved ones every year as Christmas gifts. “And so until she died, those zippered sweaters I wear on the Neighborhood were all made by my mother,” he explained.

9. HE WAS COLORBLIND.

Those brightly colored sweaters were a trademark of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, but the colorblind host might not have always noticed. In a 2003 article, just a few days after his passing, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote that:

Among the forgotten details about Fred Rogers is that he was so colorblind he could not distinguish between tomato soup and pea soup.

He liked both, but at lunch one day 50 years ago, he asked his television partner Josie Carey to taste it for him and tell him which it was.

Why did he need her to do this, Carey asked him. Rogers liked both, so why not just dip in?

"If it's tomato soup, I'll put sugar in it," he told her.

10. HE WORE SNEAKERS AS A PRODUCTION CONSIDERATION.

According to Wagner, Rogers’s decision to change into sneakers for each episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was about production, not comfort. “His trademark sneakers were born when he found them to be quieter than his dress shoes as he moved about the set,” wrote Wagner.

11. MICHAEL KEATON GOT HIS START ON THE SHOW.

Oscar-nominated actor Michael Keaton's first job was as a stagehand on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, manning Picture, Picture, and appearing as Purple Panda.

12. ROGERS GAVE GEORGE ROMERO HIS FIRST PAYING GIG, TOO.

It's hard to imagine a gentle, soft-spoken, children's education advocate like Rogers sitting down to enjoy a gory, violent zombie movie like Dawn of the Dead, but it actually aligns perfectly with Rogers's brand of thoughtfulness. He checked out the horror flick to show his support for then-up-and-coming filmmaker George Romero, whose first paying job was with everyone's favorite neighbor.

“Fred was the first guy who trusted me enough to hire me to actually shoot film,” Romero said. As a young man just out of college, Romero honed his filmmaking skills making a series of short segments for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, creating a dozen or so titles such as “How Lightbulbs Are Made” and “Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy.” The zombie king, who passed away in 2017, considered the latter his first big production, shot in a working hospital: “I still joke that 'Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy' is the scariest film I’ve ever made. What I really mean is that I was scared sh*tless while I was trying to pull it off.”

13. ROGERS HELPED SAVE PUBLIC TELEVISION.

In 1969, Rogers—who was relatively unknown at the time—went before the Senate to plead for a $20 million grant for public broadcasting, which had been proposed by President Johnson but was in danger of being sliced in half by Richard Nixon. His passionate plea about how television had the potential to turn kids into productive citizens worked; instead of cutting the budget, funding for public TV increased from $9 million to $22 million.

14. HE ALSO SAVED THE VCR.

Years later, Rogers also managed to convince the Supreme Court that using VCRs to record TV shows at home shouldn’t be considered a form of copyright infringement (which was the argument of some in this contentious debate). Rogers argued that recording a program like his allowed working parents to sit down with their children and watch shows as a family. Again, he was convincing.

15. ONE OF HIS SWEATERS WAS DONATED TO THE SMITHSONIAN.

In 1984, Rogers donated one of his iconic sweaters to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

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Art
5 Things You Might Not Know About Ansel Adams

You probably know Ansel Adams—who was born on February 20, 1902—as the man who helped promote the National Park Service through his magnificent photographs. But there was a lot more to the shutterbug than his iconic, black-and-white vistas. Here are five lesser-known facts about the celebrated photographer.

1. AN EARTHQUAKE LED TO HIS DISTINCTIVE NOSE.

Adams was a four-year-old tot when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake struck his hometown. Although the boy managed to escape injury during the quake itself, an aftershock threw him face-first into a garden wall, breaking his nose. According to a 1979 interview with TIME, Adams said that doctors told his parents that it would be best to fix the nose when the boy matured. He joked, "But of course I never did mature, so I still have the nose." The nose became Adams' most striking physical feature. His buddy Cedric Wright liked to refer to Adams' honker as his "earthquake nose.

2. HE ALMOST BECAME A PIANIST.

Adams was an energetic, inattentive student, and that trait coupled with a possible case of dyslexia earned him the heave-ho from private schools. It was clear, however, that he was a sharp boy—when motivated.

When Adams was just 12 years old, he taught himself to play the piano and read music, and he quickly showed a great aptitude for it. For nearly a dozen years, Adams focused intensely on his piano training. He was still playful—he would end performances by jumping up and sitting on his piano—but he took his musical education seriously. Adams ultimately devoted over a decade to his study, but he eventually came to the realization that his hands simply weren't big enough for him to become a professional concert pianist. He decided to leave the keys for the camera after meeting photographer Paul Strand, much to his family's dismay.

3. HE HELPED CREATE A NATIONAL PARK.

If you've ever enjoyed Kings Canyon National Park in California, tip your cap to Adams. In the 1930s Adams took a series of photographs that eventually became the book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail. When Adams sent a copy to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, the cabinet member showed it to Franklin Roosevelt. The photographs so delighted FDR that he wouldn't give the book back to Ickes. Adams sent Ickes a replacement copy, and FDR kept his with him in the White House.

After a few years, Ickes, Adams, and the Sierra Club successfully convinced Roosevelt to make Kings Canyon a national park in 1940. Roosevelt's designation specifically provided that the park be left totally undeveloped and roadless, so the only way FDR himself would ever experience it was through Adams' lenses.

4. HE WELCOMED COMMERCIAL ASSIGNMENTS.

While many of his contemporary fine art photographers shunned commercial assignments as crass or materialistic, Adams went out of his way to find paying gigs. If a company needed a camera for hire, Adams would generally show up, and as a result, he had some unlikely clients. According to The Ansel Adams Gallery, he snapped shots for everyone from IBM to AT&T to women's colleges to a dried fruit company. All of this commercial print work dismayed Adams's mentor Alfred Stieglitz and even worried Adams when he couldn't find time to work on his own projects. It did, however, keep the lights on.

5. HE AND GEORGIA O'KEEFFE WERE FRIENDS.

Adams and legendary painter O'Keeffe were pals and occasional traveling buddies who found common ground despite their very different artistic approaches. They met through their mutual friend/mentor Stieglitz—who eventually became O'Keeffe's husband—and became friends who traveled throughout the Southwest together during the 1930s. O'Keeffe would paint while Adams took photographs.

These journeys together led to some of the artists' best-known work, like Adams' portrait of O'Keeffe and a wrangler named Orville Cox, and while both artists revered nature and the American Southwest, Adams considered O'Keeffe the master when it came to capturing the area. 

“The Southwest is O’Keeffe’s land,” he wrote. “No one else has extracted from it such a style and color, or has revealed the essential forms so beautifully as she has in her paintings.”

The two remained close throughout their lives. Adams would visit O'Keeffe's ranch, and the two wrote to each other until Adams' death in 1984.

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