OXON HILL, Md. — The Scripps National Spelling Bee weeded out the field to the truly elite spellers during Wednesday’s grueling preliminary rounds. Each of the 291 spellers got the opportunity to spell two words on stage. Those who didn’t misspell a word were then at the mercy of their score on a written spelling and vocabulary test that they took on Tuesday. Ultimately, the top 40 spellers advanced to Thursday’s finals.
Here are some memorable moments from Wednesday’s action.
Six-year-old Edith Fuller of Tulsa, Oklahoma, had to spell words just as difficult as those everyone else faced in the National Spelling Bee. She got them both right, but like more than 100 other spellers, her test score wasn’t high enough to make the finals.
Edith did receive one accommodation to her tender age.
Spellers were assigned numbers in a random draw this year, and Edith, the youngest speller in the history of a competition that allows kids up to age 15, got No. 290 ‚Äî making her the second-to-last speller to reach the microphone.
When her group of spellers took the stage, Edith was conspicuously absent, her seat empty. She arrived more than halfway through the 2-hour round and sat with her feet dangling over the edge of the chair.
Her parents got permission from Scripps to let Edith spend some of her time offstage while waiting to spell.
“A 6-year-old, sitting in one place, not interacting with anybody, for two hours is the equivalent of torture,” said her father, Justin Fuller. “The spelling bee, the people who are running it, are very sensitive to special needs all across the spectrum and this request was hastily accommodated.”
Added her mother, Annie Fuller: “This is a girl who has difficulty sitting through a Disney movie.”
Edith had nowhere to hide during a news conference where she was asked to explain why she likes spelling, list her favourite animals and share stories about the fun times she’s shared with other spellers. She offered three-to-five-word answers before turning her head shyly away from the microphone. When she got a follow-up question she didn’t understand or care to answer, she just ignored it. It was a performance reminiscent of an agitated Russell Westbrook, dismissively shooting down reporters at NBA press conferences.
Occasionally she mumbled a gem. At one point, apropos of nothing, she mentioned that she hoped to invent a new kind of refrigerator.
As for the spelling, she handled that with apparent ease. In the first round, her word was “nyctinasty,” the movement of plants in response to the onset of darkness. Like the polished spellers who fare best in the bees, she repeated the word several times and calmly asked for the definition and language of origin.
“I didn’t feel nervous,” Edith said. “I felt good, actually.”
She got “tapas” in the second round and didn’t seem to have heard of the Spanish small plates before, but the applause let her know she spelled it right.
A LEGEND IN HIS SPARE TIME
Many spellers play sports in their leisure time, but few are elite athletes.
Rohan Sachdev, 14, of Cary, North Carolina, is an exception. He’s the No. 1 ranked tennis player in his age group in the state. He wants to buck the conventional wisdom that a speller who devotes too much time to athletics can’t win. His spelling resume includes third-place finishes at two other bees, the North South Foundation and the South Asian Spelling Bee, that serve as a proving ground for future national champions.
Rohan finished inside the top 50 two years ago. Last year, he lost at regionals ‚Äî to his younger brother, Rahul, now 12. He advanced to Thursday’s finals and believes he’s capable of winning.
“It’s possible. It just takes a lot of time management skills,” Rohan said. “Most kids can spell right when they come back from school. I play tennis for a long time and then I come back and do my spelling.”
Rohan wore a blue cotton polo and khaki shorts on stage, paired with neon-pink tennis shoes and black, crew-length socks pulled up to mid-calf like his favourite player, Roger Federer.
“I wanted to wear tennis clothes,” he said, but his mom vetoed that.
One thing he doesn’t mind sacrificing as he juggles tennis, spelling, and advanced schoolwork: sleep.
“I sleep at like 12:30. I don’t like to sleep,” he said. “Wake up at 6.”
EYE OF THE LION
Daniel Larsen of Bloomington, Indiana, wore a T-shirt with a realistic likeness of a lion. The animal’s eyes peered out menacingly from behind the name placard hanging from his neck.
“I wore it for the regional spelling bee,” said Daniel, 13. “I thought it would bring me luck. I like lions, also.”
Daniel stood out for another reason. He’s the only competitor to have successfully submitted a crossword puzzle to The New York Times. His puzzle ran this year.
“I’ve sent 20. They’ve used one. There are a few more that are pending, so I’m hoping,” he said.
Crosswords have been helpful, too, for familiarity with some of the short, obscure words that sometimes trip up spellers. Daniel mentioned “rhea,” a large, flightless South American bird. The word was included in the study guide for the first onstage round, and it came up in the bee. Samuel Paul spelled it correctly.
“You see it more in crosswords than in real life,” Daniel said.
SAVORING THE MOMENT
Spellers come to the bee with different goals. Some hope to make the top 50 or the top 10. The best put in thousands of hours in a bid to win it all.
Some just come to the bee to have fun. Will Lourcey, 14, of Fort Worth, Texas, fell into that category.
“I set a goal for myself to get to the National Spelling Bee. Now that I’ve achieved it, I want to be here for the experience,” said Will, who did not make the finals. “I’m not as hardcore or serious as some of the kids. They study dictionaries.”
Will’s first word was “Ruritanian,” and he didn’t appear to have much trouble with it. Still, he milked his time on stage, smiling and gesturing enthusiastically as he asked for all the information about the word. He pumped his fists and gave a thumbs-up when he spelled it correctly. Afterward, he said he got lucky.
Will said he only “took a glance” at the study guide for words that would be used in the first onstage round. “Ruritanian was one of the ones I actually looked at.”
Will admitted he studied hard to win his regional bee. But he’s concerned about some kids who don’t take time to enjoy their bee experience.
“Most of these kids seem like well-functioning human beings. I admire their dedication to their art,” he said. “I’d rather not be a computer, and go out with a laugh. Those kids dedicated a lot of time and it’s really admirable. It’s just not my style.”