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May 26, 2006

Great Moments in Spelling: The Interview

We’re now less than one week away from the National Spelling Bee. If you’re like me, you’re feeling the electricity in the air in anticipation of the event. And if you’re not like me...well just humor me over the next several days and pretend like you’re interested. Because things might only get weirder from here.

Have you ever met somebody and wondered how your paths didn’t cross years sooner? I found someone like that a few months ago, who will be my co-blogger over the course of several posts related to the NSB.

Through a mutual acquaintance, I have been exchanging e-mails with a man named Dave Riddle, who lives in Pacific Grove and was the National Senior Spelling Bee champion in 2005. His son Christoph represented Monterey County in the NSB on 2004. They were 50 feet away from the famous Akshay Buddiga faint, a moment that will go down in Bee history in similar fashion as Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game for basketball or Game 6 of the 1986 Mets/Red Sox World Series for baseball.

It also happens that Dave is an awesome runner. His PRs in every event just smoke any of the best times I’ve ever run. For all these years, I thought I was the only guy who dreamed of an Olympic running/spelling duathlon, but it turns out I wouldn’t even have a chance of making the team – this guy would leave me in the dust in both disciplines.

When I heard that there was a fast local runner who also happened to be a National Senior Spelling Bee champ, who also had a kid who participated in the NSB...I mean, I wouldn’t have been any more excited if you told me Beyonce had moved in down the street and was looking for a running partner. I figured this was a guy I had to talk to.

After we touched base, I blindsided him with a crazy proposition: I wanted to interview him, and by extension his son, about the spelling bees. I wanted to see how the preparation and competition affected a person and his family, and compare it to what athletes experience in their particular events. And I wanted to post the interview on my blog.

Amazingly, he agreed. And then my head started spinning. The problem wasn’t coming up with questions, but limiting the amount and scope of things I asked so my interest in him didn’t cross the line from “curious inquiry” to “disturbing fetish”. I eventually settled on a list of questions, and fired them away.

So Dave doesn’t have to answer all the questions at once, I’m going to post the interview in sections, starting with Part 1 today. Part 2 will be whenever we get around to putting it together, and so on.

Here, then is Part 1 of what I think will be a very interesting series. It discusses family commitment, overcoming setbacks, and triumph through perseverence and endurance. If you’ve stuck with me this far through this post, the interview is definitely worth another few minutes:


Q: First, give me some of your running credentials. How many years have you been running? How much running (miles per week, or workouts per week, etc) do you do currently? What are your favorite races? What are your best times? Any other info you want to give me would be fine.

A: 5K 15:50 Stuttgart (1984); 10K 32:50 Frankfurt (1984); 10 mile 55:47 San Diego (1976) ½ marathon 1:12:57 Korea (1982); marathon 2:33 Long Island (1982). I had been running and competing in earnest since 1965 and quit in 2003 with the Bubba Gump 5K. I wanted to end on a high note by winning the division (50-55) and breaking the 6-minute pace. While no stunning achievement, I was happy to do both. I’m free to not run now and stay fit anyway. Tennis is my overwhelmingly favorite sport.

OK, on to the spelling questions…

Q: First of all, congratulations to both you and your son on your amazing accomplishments. There probably aren’t too many parent-and-child teams who have individually competed in national championship competitions. How did you each get involved in the competitions? Did one of you start, and the other join in later, or has it always been a family thing to train for spelling bees? Do you train together? Does the rest of the family get involved, too?

A: The father-son spelling thing began in 1999. My son, Christoph, was doing spell-offs in the 4th grade to qualify for the annual Lyceum bees for 4th and 5th graders. The same year, the Friends of the Pacific Grove Library announced it was putting on the 1st annual adult spelling bee as a "Butterfly Town" fundraiser. My son and my team each did well in our respective events---but won no honors.

Over the next few years we did better. In the 5th grade Christoph was the school’s alternate for the Lyceum Bee. I began poring over obtuse spelling word lists, definitions, and etymologies. This learning experience enabled me to gradually bolster Christoph’s chances of succeeding in the one bee that counted: Monterey County.

He really wanted to go to DC. I was motivated to right that 1st year’s “loss” at the Pacific Grove Adult Bee and set an example for Christoph. I organized adult teams that won 3 years straight. My family always sat at our table as supporters.

As parents know, the pressure is immense if your child hasn't achieved what he/she would like to achieve--e.g., place in or win school, county, regional, national competitions--whatever it is. It’s tough on the parent, too. My son, Christoph, tried and tried, leading up to his third and final attempt to qualify for the NSB by winning our Monterey County Bee in 2004.

It was his last-chance effort, and he knew he was the underdog. The girl who had been second in the previous two county championships (and who won the Lyceum bee) was back again for her last try too. The Monterey Herald article is below. [Editor's note: long-time running bloggers will recognize the name on the Herald by-line.]

After 5th place in 2003, teen wins spelling contest


In a 29-round rumble rivaling any prize fight, York School's Christoph Riddle took down Carmel Middle School's Stacy Little on Sunday to win the 2004 Countywide Spelling Bee.

Call it the Fracas in Salinas.

Stacy had finished second two years in a row. Christoph was looking to top last year's fifth-place finish.

Their 49 other opponents vanquished by Round 8, Stacy and Christoph, both eighth-graders and seasoned spelling-bee veterans, sparred for 21 more rounds. They traded spellings on words that could make even the most stout-hearted librarian break out in a cold sweat.

They spelled words like diaphaneity -- the quality of being translucent -- or eurybathic -- capable of living underwater in a wide range of depths.

Several times, one child or the other would get a word wrong, opening an opportunity for one to become a victor. But each time, the other child would spell their word wrong, too.

Each time, that is, until round 29, when Stacy met up with acervation, a noun meaning an accumulation. She misspelled it by inserting an "S."

Christoph sashayed to the podium, correctly spelling cachexia, which is the wasting away caused by a chronic disease, and, finally, patache, which is a smaller ship that tends to a fleet.

And Riddle beat Little. He's headed to Washington, D.C. to compete in the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee. How does it feel?

"Pretty damn good," said Christoph. "I would have been happy with second."

Christoph's victory was a team effort, said his father, Dave Riddle, a government lawyer at the Presidio of Monterey. But in the end, the father had to watch from the audience at Hartnell College. Dave said he felt like he was exploding as he watched his son from the stands.

"It was a family thing we were doing," the elder Riddle said.

The analogous sports term would be “upset.” You can bet we have a laminated copy of the article at home with its color photos.


OK, that's enough for Part 1. Michelle has probably had to refill her tea twice by now. More to come later. Have a good weekend everybody.


backofpack 5/26/06, 12:05 PM  

Are you kidding? Leave in the middle of the article to refill? No way!

This is great Donald! Lucky for you to meet not one, but two! of your spelling bee idols!

I can't wait to read the next installment...

By the way, we could probably use an article on how Dave managed to leave running behind and still find fulfillment in life.

stronger 5/26/06, 1:43 PM  

There is hope for your duathlon event. How do you think underwater basket weaving became a sport?

robtherunner 5/26/06, 4:24 PM  

You know Donald you shouldn't believe a word Michelle says. She really is not drinking tea. It's Zipfizz. She'an addict. Maybe your next series of posts can be on the craziest addictions in the blogging world and Michelle can be case #1.

backofpack 5/26/06, 4:50 PM  

Okay, now. The funny thing is when I was reading Donald's post, I WAS drinking tea. But right now, reading Rob's comment, I am drinking zipfizz! Come on Rob, zipfizz is an afternoon drink! (Unless you are in the midst of a relay, then all bets are off!)

olga 5/27/06, 7:52 PM  

Now I am scared to not only post, but even leave a comment - I am sure you count every mistake I make in spelling, not to mention grammar:)

matt 5/29/06, 8:37 AM  

hehehe, i am with olga on this one. i have read this post several times and have enjoyed it quite a bit. i am also amazed that you two haven't crossed paths. i love what you are doing here with the interview format. again, you are very cool, donald!

matt 5/29/06, 2:00 PM  

so i started to see some of the commercials for the bee and i got a big smile on my face as i thought about your sitting down and watching that with your family. do you think spelling is a natural talent for these kids or something at which they have to work? i suppose it is just like running...those that were born to run vs. those that want to run like those that were born to run (and what we have to do to get there).

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