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October 19, 2005

Great Moments in Spelling (Part II)

At long last, the day I circled on my calendar months ago had finally arrived: the 2005 edition of the Scripps National Spelling Bee! Five hours of coverage on ESPN, live from the Independence Concourse of the Grand Hyatt Washington in downtown Washington, D.C.

Why in God's name do they have this thing on a weekday? I mean, not all of us can skip work to watch year after year. What on Earth did people do before TiVo? The Scripps folks should have the Bee on a Sunday, like the Super Bowl, or on a holiday weekend, like the Indy 500. It's that important.

To commemorate the day, I compiled a real-time diary of random observations that occurred to me when watching this year's event. Herewith, a runner's thoughts on the 78th annual Bee:

10:02 (all times PDT) - Today's co-host: Katie Kerwin McCrimmon, winner of the 1979 National Spelling Bee. It's like having Frank Shorter doing commentary for the Olympic Marathon. I'm guessing she kept her maiden name so that people would recognize her: "are you that Katie Kerwin, from the 1979 Bee?" She's still basking in the glory, 26 years later. This has to be about as far as anyone can milk having "former National Spelling Bee champion" on her resume, right?

10:13 - The first seven spellers have all spelled their words correctly. There are a finite number of words used for each Bee, so there is always the possibility that the entire word list could be used up before all the contestants are eliminated, resulting in co-champions. It hasn't happened since 1962, but today we're starting out on course record pace...

10:14 - Nevermind. Maithreyi Gopalakrishnan just tripped over "lignapurdous" (something that destroys wood). Game on.

10:32 - Katherine Seymour is struggling with the word "incunabula" (books written before the year 1500). In the process of asking her permitted questions, she tries to slip in "How do you spell that?" The judge pauses and smiles, and everybody in the room has a good laugh, thankful for the light moment. Katherine then misses the word and is escorted offstage. The lesson: never lose your focus. It's a fatal mistake.

10:33 - I know this one! "Matutinal" describes an activity that habitually takes place in the early morning hours. I got this word a few weeks ago on my word-of-the-day e-mail from dictionary.com (thaat's right...insert your geek joke here), and I've been waiting to drop it in a column about running. I mean, my training group is definitely comprised of matutinal people. Way matutinal. They don't make 'em much more matutinal than us. Apparently Sahiti Surapaneni is familiar with the word also, as she easily nails it to advance to Round 6.

10:37 - Returning from a commercial break, ESPN shows the clip of the legendary "euonym girl", Rebecca Sealfon, who jumped up and down while shouting the letters of this final word to win the 1997 Bee. Quite simply one of the best Bee moments ever. It was like watching Alan Webb's high school record mile at the Pre Classic - an electrifying, unforgettable breakthrough performance by a young phenom at their absolute prime.

That type of performance at the Bee will never be duplicated. It's a lose-lose situation for any kid with the temerity to imitate that response on the final word. Spell it correctly, and you're just copying the girl from 1997. Miss it, and you look like a complete choker.

11:02 - 12-year-old Nidharshan Anandasivam is stumped by the word "muesli", taking almost all his allotted time before tripping up and omitting the "e". My goodness - muesli? That word knocked a kid out of the contest? I could understand if it were "Cap'n Crunch", with that unconventional p-apostrophe-n variant, but wow - "muesli." For the rest of his life, whenever he goes down the cereal aisle of the grocery store, this poor kid is going to flashback to his most disappointing moment ever.

11:33 - Monterey County has the Big Sur Marathon and the Wildflower Triathlon on successive weekends; in Washington, 11-year-old Bonny Jain finished 4th in the National Geography Bee one week before his appearance here at the Spelling Bee. I wonder how the training between the two events compares. Does studying for one event impact your performance in the other? There may be some good cross-training potential: after you manage to locate places like Uzbekistan or Kuala Lumpur, their names provide great opportunity to polish your spelling skills. Is fatigue a factor in entering back-to-back events? Did he purposely not taper for the Geography Bee, so he could stay sharp for the Spelling Bee? I'm full of questions about this.

Come to think of it, why don't these geography kids get more dap? The spellers have become superstars in recent years with movies and national TV coverage, so why is the Geography Bee neglected? They must be equally strenuous events. In fact, geography is probably harder in many ways - I don't remember any catchy rhymes like "i before e..." to help remember the highest point of each continent. It's probably a much larger volume of information to learn, with capital cities, rivers, mountain ranges, and relative sizes of every country. Geography kids deserve much more attention than they're getting (gosh, it's even more like triathlon than I thought).

11:38 - Every year, there are lots of musical terms (dolcissimo, pianissimo, notturno) and medical terms (pleurisy, trichinosis, spondylitis). People joke that the first step to being a great runner is to pick the right parents. I'm thinking if there were some kid with a doctor father and a concert pianist mother, he would be almost unstoppable in the Bee.

12:00 - 1:00 - Lunch break. 29 spellers left. P-R-E-S-S-U-R-E.

1:23 - After they hear their assigned word, some kids like Alexis Ducote and John Minnich turn their placards upside down and pretend to write the word on the backside. They aren't allowed pencils during the bee, but this practice helps them to visualize the word as it is written. Sports psychologists are always yammering at us runners to visualize success, and picture ourselves running strong and effortlessly. I've always thought it was bunk, but most of the kids who do this at the Bee end up spelling the word successfully. Ducote just nailed "persifleur" (one who indulges in banter). Maybe I'll give that visualization thing a try sometime.

1:48 - As contestants miss a word, they get escorted to the "comfort room" off stage. The cameras don't go there, which of course makes me wonder- what goes on back there? Are there free sodas and video games to cheer you up? Do they play Hilary Duff CDs and hand out stacks of Yu-Gi-Oh cards? Why can't they go interview the kids back there, like they do in the "kiss and cry" area with figure skaters who have just crashed a triple axle? There's a lot of ratings potential here.

2:27 - After Marshall Winchester is eliminated by missing "serang" (the boatswain of an East Indian army crew) in Round 11, the remaining four contestants are of Indian descent, guaranteeing us another Indian winner. This makes three years out of the past four with an Indian winner, and numerous second through fifth place finishes in the last five years. If the Spelling Bee were the Boston Marathon, these Indian kids would be like the Kenyans, increasingly dominating the event year after year. Am I the first person to notice this? Ten years from now, it will be a shocker if the winner isn't Indian.

2:38 -11-year-old Samir Patel has made the Bee look effortless to this point. Often, upon hearing a word such as "hooroosh", he asks some show-offy question about the definition such as, "Does that mean a great commotion?", or about the origin of other words like "Is that of Latin origin, translated from the Greek form?", which of course he knows are correct before he even asks them. He's in the final two and a clear favorite to win, but suddenly in Round 19 he stumbles on "roscian" (relating to or skilled in acting), and there is a collective gasp through Independence Concourse. The door is now open for Anurag Kashyap to win, like a patient runner who drafts the leader for the whole race before sprinting past him in the final straightaway.

2:40 - Anurag nails "appoggiatura" (another musical term! It's an embellishing note one half-line above or below the note that precedes it) and claims the prize. Like last year's winner, David Tidmarsh, Anurag's response is to hide his face behind his placard and cry. What does it say about the stress of the competition that these kids are reduced to emotional wrecks- even the ones who win? Remind me to keep my kids away from this sort of thing when they get older.

2:42 - In his post-Bee interview, Anurag is asked to describe how he feels. He stammers for a bit before finally coming up with..."ecstaticness". What? Is that even a word? Apparently not, for he quickly corrects himself to say "ecstatic, sorry." After completely wrestling the English language to the ground, the kid finally bonked and went into multi-system shutdown. It's like watching a marathon runner run a strong race and pump his fists across the finish line, and then collapse and get carried to the medical tent by an elderly volunteer. He still gets to keep the marathon medal, and Anurag still keeps his trophy.

Watching at home, I can only hope he's headed for some refreshments and a massage tent somewhere. After his performance today, he certainly deserves it.

See other installments of this series on sidebar at right


jeff 10/21/05, 9:55 AM  

holy moo.

that was one of the best posts i've read in a LONG time. who does a play by play of a spelling bee? and compares it to marathon running?

and the imagery of the runner pumping his arms at the end, only to colapse? awesome. just plain awesome.

Danny 10/21/05, 2:08 PM  

that was hysterical. i thought i'd give up on such a long post on the spelling bee! (the spelling bee!!!) but it was so funny, i just couldn't stop reading...

(it was supposed to be funny, right?)

Downhillnut 11/11/05, 7:45 AM  

This and your Part I are amazing posts. I LOVE how you've not only drawn out so many running references, but even managed to compare geography to triathlon.

Now I feel an incredible desire to have a new word e-mailed to me every day...

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