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June 4, 2007

Great Moments in Spelling (Part IV)

Welcome to the 80th Scripps National Spelling Bee! 286 spellers from all over the country – and around the world – have converged upon Independence Hall of the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, in Carmel Valley, CA, I’ve converged onto a big recliner, armed with a laptop and a tall Diet Pepsi, to take in all six hours of coverage on ESPN and ABC. It’s the night that spelling fans all over the country dream of. I mean … how many other events provide such comprehensive coverage? NBC only gives the Ironman a 2-hour TV slot, and even the longest Tour de France stages only command three hours of airtime on Versus. When it comes to giving the fans what they want, the NSB is second to none.

As usual, I kept a running diary of the proceedings. And as you should expect by now, it’s a long one – so let’s skip any further introduction and just get right to it. All times listed are the PDT broadcast times - and all pictures are courtesy of Reuters.

7:03 AM: This morning’s hosts are Chris McKendry and Paul Loeffler. Loeffler was a Bee finalist in 1990 and did a pretty solid job with his commentary in last year’s telecast.

Unfortunately, Loeffler’s not off to a roaring start: at the top of the show, he tells us that prior experience is a huge factor at the Bee, as 26 of the final 59 spellers are returning competitors. So … doesn’t that mean that 33 of the finalists aren’t returners? Good thing this isn’t the Math Bee, or we’d need to find a new host.

Then again, maybe he’s just nervous about being replaced by Mike and Mike tonight.

7:04: A couple of posts ago, you thought I was kidding about placing bets on the Spelling Bee - all of you except Momo, that is. She’s my kind of girl: a 6th grade spelling bee champ who offered me a wager before this year’s NSB. I took 4-time finalist Samir Patel, and gave her the pick of the field.

Just before our contest begins, Samir’s the only contestant to be interviewed; the announcers identify him as the heavy favorite in today’s Bee. Watching at home, I’m completely confident that I’m in good hands with Samir. Even if he doesn’t win the trophy, one thing is certain: Momo is going down.

And we’re underway! We pick up the action in Round 5.

7:05: The first word of the round, difficile, goes to 14-year-old Grace Pyo. It’s a French derivative, and a typical snapshot of how silly things can get at the NSB.

My daughters have a book called Fancy Nancy, about a girl who likes to dress up and do everything in a fancy way. For example, she loves the word “fuchsia”, because it’s a fancy way of saying “purple.”

Well … do you know what the definition of difficile is? It’s “difficult”. A fancy way of saying difficult. And Grace doesn’t realize it, and leaves out an F. In other words, she was tripped up by a Fancy Nancy word.

7:28: The Canadians are coming!! ESPN reports that 20 Canadian kids have entered this year’s Bee, an increase from 14 last year. Last year’s runner-up was Canadian; one of these years, some Canuck kid is going to break all the way through and take our trophy home. (I know, I discussed this last year – but I still think it would feel strange if our NSB trophy ever spent an entire year on the wrong side of the border. And yes, I'm aware that this is exactly how Canadians will feel if the Anaheim Ducks win the Stanley Cup this week.)

Did you ever have a neighbor who is polite, friendly, and well liked by everybody, but keeps to himself a little too often, to the point of occasional suspicion? Maybe he’s got some big project going on in his garage, but he never lets anyone see it, so you start wondering what the heck he’s working on in there. After several months, your curiosity runs wild, and you start imagining all manner of threatening scenarios that might be brewing right on the other side of the fence.

I’m starting to think of Canada as that strange neighbor. Sure, they all appear charming and humble on the surface – but there must be some sort of Manhattan Project going on up there, with the goal of dominating America’s National Spelling Bee. Every year, they send more kids who progress further into the competition. It’s like they’ve dedicated an entire generation to establishing intellectual superiority over us – let’s call it the Maple Leaf Project - and they’re making excellent progress.

Then again, maybe they just have a lot of smart kids who study hard and enjoy the competition. But I still think my secret project theory is worth mentioning.

(The Canadians: "Just smile and wave, boys ... just smile and wave ...")

7:42: Claire Zhang looks confused after hearing the ding that indicates she misspelled the word burelage (a pattern of lines or dots on security paper). Her confusion is well-founded: as she is escorted offstage, the judges review the tape and realize that she did, in fact, spell the word correctly. Claire rejoins the competition and gets some high fives upon returning to her chair.

Most professional sports leagues are pitifully behind the times in embracing the use of instant replay to enhance the competition. The NFL and NBA both grapple with the proper situations to use it, and Major League Baseball stubbornly refuses to implement it at all. But the NSB has effectively employed instant replay for years. You tell me – which is the more progressive organization?

8:22: The definition of strigil is “a metal instrument to scrape the skin used by ancient Greeks after athletic exercises.” How funny - nowadays, triathletes use sharp metal instruments to scrape their legs before their events. Last month, the strigil I used came from underneath my wife’s bathroom sink, and had an attractive pink plastic handle so I could use it in the shower. I didn’t realize I was carrying out a 4000-year-old Greek tradition, though.

8:28: 13-year-old Kate Weir, the New Zealand national bee champ, has been giving the judges fits all day long. Her Kiwi accent is incredibly thick, leading to the following difficulties:

She pronounces the letter G as “jay” - which is the exact same way she says the letter J. She pronounces her A’s as E’s, her E’s as I’s, and her I’s as A’s

And here is the word she receives : jardinière.

The judges are silent for a full five minutes after she spells the word (meaning a decorative ceramic pot), conferring with each other, and completely baffled as to what letters the girl actually said. They listen to replays, which only confuse them more. They can’t ask her to respell the word, or to write it down, or give her another word, because any of those decisions would violate the rules of competition.

Finally, Head Judge Mary Brooks leans into the mic, initiating the following exchange:

Judge: “Could you repeat the first letter that you said for that word?”

Kate: “Jay”

Judge: “Tell us another word that starts with that letter.”

Kate: “Jay-raffe”


(Ladies and Gentlemen, Judge Mary Brooks! That’s why she earns the big bucks.)

9:06: AAAARRRGGGHH!!!! Samir Patel (at left) chokes on clevis (a connection or fastener for fitting parts), and is out of the competition. The crowd lets out a stunned gasp, and he receives a standing ovation from the other spellers while walking offstage. It’s an impressive, touching sight – and yet, I can’t summon any sympathy for the kid. Because right now, even though she’s 1000 miles away, all I can hear is the sound of Momo laughing.

It’s simply a terrible turn of events for me - I mean, for Samir. No, actually … I mean for me. My head is spinning. Pause the TiVo. I need a minute alone.

(Ten minutes later … )

10:07-10:30: OK, I’m back. The rest of the morning session passes by in a blur: spellers come and go, some return to their seats, some are escorted offstage. Meanwhile, I’ve completely lost my focus – the Bee’s just not the same without Samir. And I’ve got more than three hours left to watch. I feel like I’ve lost my pacer near the halfway point of an ultramarathon, and now I’m uncertain whether I want to continue alone.

Luckily, there’s an aid station just ahead: the midday break at the conclusion of round 6. I’m going to pour some water over my head, take in some calories, and try to come back strong in prime time.

8:00 PM: Prime time coverage begins – and Robin Roberts is in the house. The NSB has officially gone big time. 15 spellers remain to duke it out under the hot lights.

8:09: 13-year-old Evan O’Dorney (at right) of Danville, CA, looks poised and confident as he correctly spells rascacio (a type of scorpion fish). I like this O’Dorney kid – he looks like he could go all the way. Hmmm … do you think it’s too late to e-mail Momo back?

8:11: Our first “up close and personal” profile of the night, of 12-year-old Tia Thomas, whose parents make the point of telling us that “she’s not a nerd”. Then we hear Tia say her favorite word is pneumoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, after which our new co-host, ex-NFL player Mike Golic, explains to us that the word means “an inhalation of a fine quartz dust.” Um … could we just get on with the Bee, please? Apparently it’s all too much for Tia, who misspells zacate (a forage of grassy plants), and exits stage left.

8:16: In my Wildflower recap, I said that some days you’re the hammer, and some days you’re the nail – and right now, the Bee is swinging a huge hammer. Since the prime time broadcast has started, 3 of the first 4 kids have misspelled their words. ABC has two hours allocated to this show – but at this pace, they’ll be wrapping things up in 30 minutes. Hey … if that happens, do you think they’ll show a rerun of Lost? All of a sudden, I’m not really sure what I’m cheering for.

At least the Bee is punishing the Canadian and American kids equally: after 13-year-old Cody Wang of Calgary trips over apozem (a boiled medicinal preparation), only two Canucks remain. The Maple Leaf Project may need to wait another year – because America’s not giving up this Bee easily.

8:31: Another “up close” piece features Kavya Shivashankar, who was Momo’s choice to win the NSB. It’s a savvy pick, as the profile highlights Kavya’s dedication to her studies, her caring nature, and her passions for dancing and music, in addition to spelling. Apparently though, Kavya never found time to read The Da Vinci Code, because she misspells the word cilice (an undergarment of rough material worn as penance).

8:38: Claire Zhang misspells urgrund (a primal cause).
8:45: 13-year-old Nithya Vijayakumar misses pelorus (a navigational instrument).
8:58: 14-year-old Amy Chyao misses grognard (an old soldier).

And the Bee keeps swinging that hammer.

9:12: Nate Gartke is playing the “easy-going, non-threatening Canadian” role to perfection. With every turn, he saunters up to the mic in an almost bashful manner, spells his word correctly, then gives a big smile and friendly wave to the crowd while returning to his chair. Clearly, he’s been very well-coached by the Maple Leaf Project. As he rolls through abseil (a type of mountaineering descent) and rognon (a small rounded rock mass), I’m starting to get worried all over again.

(Evan and Nate)

9:20: Connor Spencer misspells cachalot (a sperm whale), immediately followed by Matthew Evans misspelling fauchard (a long-handled medieval weapon). The pressure has been ratcheted up so much, and the words have become so difficult at this point, I don’t think it’s accurate to say the Bee’s using a hammer anymore – it seems like sometime around 9:15, it switched to a fauchard. Kids are dropping left and right.

9:51: All but one, that is. Evan O’Dorney is in the zone: his face is expressionless, his voice is unwavering, and he’s cool under pressure as he rattles off schuhplattler (a Bavarian courtship dance) and laquear (a recessed panel). And once Isabel Jacobsen misspells cyanophycean (a blue-green alga), Evan is the last kid standing to defend the Stars and Stripes. We’re down to the final two – Nate and Evan - at the start of Round 10.

10:06: The kids trade correct answers for two rounds, before Nate is the first to falter, stumbling on coryza (an inflammatory respiratory disease) in Round 12. Canadian to a fault, he shrugs his shoulders and keeps a smile on his face as he sits down with his parents, and watches Evan step to center stage.

10:07: Evan correctly spells serrefine (a small surgical forceps), and claims the 2007 National Spelling Bee title!

After defeating 285 other competitors (not to mention vanquishing the Maple Leaf Project for yet another year), you’d think Evan would be ecstatic. Instead, he barely cracks a smile while lifting the trophy. This kid's exhausted. Whoever says the Spelling Bee isn’t an endurance sport is simply out of his mind.

10:09: You know how right after you finish a tough marathon, the first thought that goes through your mind is “I’m never doing this again.”? Apparently the NSB has the same affect on these kids – because during the post-Bee interview, a clearly dazed Evan states that he’s never really enjoyed spelling.

You can forgive the champion for being a bit delirious. And like the marathon runner who eventually returns to the roads, it’s a good bet that he’ll probably look over his spelling lists from time to time in the future. He’s not eligible to enter the NSB anymore, but the event will undoubtedly occupy a special place in his heart, and he’ll probably maintain his interest in the Bee for many years to come.

Likewise, I’ll do the same. But right now, I'm off to get some sleep. Six hours of blogging is enough to wear a guy out.

Read previous editions of this series on sidebar at right


T Clarke 6/4/07, 10:33 AM  

Kate Weir - I wish I'd seen that. Too funny! Great post!

Mia 6/4/07, 11:56 AM  

I *LOVE* that you are so into the spelling bee event ;)

Wendy 6/4/07, 1:23 PM  

The Maple Leaf project ... conceived for no other reason than to keep you up nights!

Thanks for stopping by my little blog. (Either would have earned you a reply, but Off The Deep End is much more fun ...)

Phoenix 6/4/07, 2:25 PM  

Great post! Sounds like an exciting event - at least at the end.

Fran 6/4/07, 5:39 PM  

Actually, the Ducks are more Canadian than the Senators are since they have more Canadian players, at least that's what us Toronto fans are saying (we hate the Senators).

David 6/4/07, 6:23 PM  

The Bee is very worthy of a blogfest. Thanks for the highlights.

I cheered Evans' attitude about preferring math to spelling just because it takes some thought vs. memorization.

Laurie 6/4/07, 8:01 PM  

I had no idea the NSP was so entertaining. Thanks for bringing it to life for those of us who *gasp* didn't watch it.

Downhillnut 6/4/07, 8:19 PM  

I always look forward to your re-cap of the NSB. Second still gets our spellers a nice big photo in the daily papers up here.

... and if the U.S. would just let us have Lord Stanley's Cup back, we could ease up on the MLP, eh?

robtherunner 6/5/07, 5:22 PM  

I wish I would have caught up with blogs this weekend so I could have watched the Bee on Monday, but this is certainly the next best thing to the ESPN coverage. Thanks for the great wrap-up. Maybe next year you can start an e-mail reminder list for those of us who are too busy to keep up.

Journey to a Centum 6/5/07, 6:09 PM  


Grate reevu fer da hole deel! Amayzing thalint!


Mark I. 6/5/07, 6:57 PM  

Donald! You wouldn't believe it but I KNOW Nate Gartke and his parents! They are actually all VERY close friends of Aaron Trimble's. His mom is the principal of the school where Aaron teaches.

Nate is a terrific kid! I will send Aaron here to see your great post about the spelling bee. :)

craig 6/5/07, 10:16 PM  

Loved the report Donald. But Merriam-Webster on line is still at the top of my favorites list because I use it every day.

momo 6/7/07, 1:40 PM  

you know i had to read every word of this, even though i'd seen it myself. :-)

great recap. we will definitely have to rematch next year!

angie's pink fuzzy 6/10/07, 12:18 PM  

i was wondering about the maple leaf project myself. i got so tense watching the bee, i couldn't finish.

and they had a clip of evan earlier saying that he doesn't really like spelling. he just does it cause he has to (he said as he shrugged).

personally, i was rooting for the girl with 26 bracelets on her arm (the last girl to leave the stage).

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