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May 14, 2008

Great Moments in Spelling: The Beginning

As promised, today’s post has nothing to do with the Western States 100. Instead, it’s something of a look back, as well as a glimpse of what’s to come; it’s my report on the 2004 Scripps Spelling Bee.

I still remember this event like it was yesterday – it was the day I got hooked on spelling bees. I was transfixed by the competition, and knew it was a story that deserved to be written.

Of course, in 2004, I didn’t have this blog, and didn’t have a newspaper gig … basically, I was just an idiot runner who liked to write things. Eventually this report was sent by e-mail to about 10 friends and family members, most of whom replied with some kind of concern regarding my mental well-being, or made thinly-disguised suggestions of more meaningful ways to spend my time.

(I also had linked to this article once when it was on my old website – so if you were very industrious about 3 years ago, you might have seen this before. But for some reason I doubt it.)

I knew better, though – and every year since then, the Bee has been Must See Television for me. One of the first articles I posted to this blog was my report on the 2005 Bee, and the event has become one of my favorite things to write about over the years.

The other cool things at my disposal now that I didn’t have back then are all the bells and whistles of blogging: links and pictures and video clips and other stuff that that four years ago would have made my head explode. So now instead of taking my word for it, you can watch the pivotal event of the 2004 Bee for yourself, and then tell me if I was exaggerating the drama. (I’ll say no way.)

The second to last paragraph may be esoteric to all but the most hardcore track fans; I considered deleting it from this version, but decided to leave it alone, if for no better reason than to demonstrate what a nerd I used to be for the sport of running.

Two final notes: first, this collection of Bee posts is getting big enough to justify its own sidebar category, so if you’re interested in reading past episodes, I’ve stored them there.

Second, the 2008 Scripps National Spelling Bee is on Thursday, May 29th, with a daytime telecast on ESPN, and prime-time coverage of the final rounds on ABC. Set your TiVos now, and thank me later.

**

“Great Moments in Spelling” June 2004

I’ve always considered myself to be a closet geek (although the more I write, the less applicable the “closet” part becomes). Especially when I was younger, most of your garden-variety school-age stereotypes of the nerdy, oddball kid were apparent in me to some degree.

Exhibit A is that I am a very good speller. Not only that, but I think about spelling a lot, like normal people ponder their careers or families.

One of my biggest pet peeves is poor spelling, especially the intentional kind in countless businesses like Quik-E-Mart or products like Froot Loops. If I hear a word spoken and don’t know how it is spelled, I start twitching like Rain Man until I can get my hands on a dictionary.

Imagine my delight, then, when ESPN decided to broadcast not just one, but two full days of the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. last month. Yahoo! Thanks to TiVo, I had recorded six full hours of the Super Bowl of spelling at my disposal, to watch at my leisure and play along with at home.



Yes, I get excited about these things. No, my wife wasn’t impressed.

The defining moment of the Bee happened relatively early, on the first round of the 2nd day. 13-year-old Akshay Buddiga, from Colorado Springs, stood at the podium, asking clarification questions for his assigned word, alopecoid (like a fox, vulpine). Akshay’s brother was a previous Spelling Bee champ, and no siblings have ever won the Bee. While the camera was focused on him in this round, the TV commentator ominously declared, “Akshay is trying to make history here.”

As his preliminary time expired, Akshay’s pupils dilated, his eyes rolled upward, and he fainted onto the floor with a thud as the crowd uttered a shocked, collective gasp. He was only on the floor for a few seconds before he stood up, stumbled to the microphone, and spelled the word correctly- all within the allotted time.

*2008 update: Watch it for yourself! (click to play):



At home, I’m thinking … is this for real? Has a kid ever fainted in the Bee, and stayed in the competition? The audience nearly sprained their wrists clapping for the kid before he took his seat.

In the next round, a Bee official brought him a stool to sit on as he considered his word – and right away, I’m wondering: doesn’t this violate some kind of rule? Like not being allowed maintenance assistance for your bike in a triathlon, or having to walk the course in golf? This stool isn’t considered an unfair advantage somehow? I’m wondering why none of the other kids are having a fit and protesting this. Obviously, they don’t care like I do.

Anyway, Akshay sits in the chair, looking dazed and lethargic, and proceeds to nail lyophilize (to freeze-dry, as with tissue or serum). In successive rounds, he correctly spells hudibrastic, effleurage, oyez, lagniappe, and tralatitious to make the final round. It was like watching Michael Jordan stagger around the court, hitting jumper after jumper in his “flu game” of the 1997 NBA finals- I kept expecting the kid to wrap a wet towel over his head between rounds like Jordan did during the timeouts. By this time, the audience is giving him standing ovations, growing more excited with each passing round.

Finally, it’s down to only two- Akshay against David Tidmarsh, from South Bend – and now I’m thinking, how would you like to be this other kid? As if the pressure of the Bee itself isn’t enough, he can be absolutely certain that every single person in the building, except for his own mother, is cheering for his opponent to win. This is how the Soviet hockey team probably felt in the 1980 Olympics.

David is so nervous that when awaiting his turns between rounds, he slumps in his chair and hides his face behind his numbered placard. In the darkness of the rear auditorium, Bee officials were probably already on the phone to the Disney Company, consulting on who should play Akshay in the movie version. The two spellers trade correct words as the tension mounts.

And then suddenly, the unthinkable happens, as Akshay trips over schwarmerei (excessive, unbridled enthusiasm). The crowd is stunned- how could this happen? He was in the zone! The story clearly wasn’t scripted this way.

The audience momentarily loses its collective schwarmerei as David approaches the microphone. His composure is slowly eroding as he listens to his word, and it’s obvious that he’s perilously close to coming completely unraveled. At home, I’m wondering again - has there ever been a faint and a nervous breakdown in the same Bee?

Mercifully, David finally starts spelling, and takes nearly 60 seconds to correctly say the letters of the winning word autochthonous (native, original), pausing several times to sob and hyperventilate, his voice quivering with equal parts excitement and fear. After winning, he shuffles slowly across the stage, arms limp at his sides, and collapses into a hug from his mom. He needs help from the MC to lift the trophy for the cameras.


Akshay sits down with his brother, ironically cursed to be the second best speller in America, yet only the second best speller in his own house. Seriously … can the Olympics top this sort of drama?

Needless to say, while watching the Bee unfold before me, I thought of many parallels to running.

I recalled runners who have came back to win races after a fall (John Landy, Lasse Viren), and runners who have overcome unforeseen physiological hardships in races to win (Bob Kempanien, Uta Pippig). I thought about the pressure of measuring up to a sibling legacy (Jorge and Edward Torres), and the pain of coming tantalizingly close to victory, only to see it slip away at the last possible instant (Hicham El Guerrouj). I thought of runners trying to succeed when the crowd is against them (Zola Budd), or pushing themselves beyond the point of physical and mental exhaustion to achieve a goal (any ultramarathoners).

*2008 addition: I thought of linking to all of these runners - but remember, I'm in burnout mode. If you want a giant dose of historic running stories, do yourself a favor and wiki search any of their names.

I thought of weaving them into the story to show off the fact that I can make almost any topic relate to running. In the end, I decided to let the Bee narrative stand on its own. Some stories just don’t need outside embellishment to be worth telling.


See other installments of this series on sidebar at right.

7 comments:

triguyjt 5/16/08, 8:20 AM  

to compare him to jordan,hitting shot after shot was perfect...I of course remember the fainting spell, and have only semi-paid attention to the bee...I will make it a point to sit through some of it this time around...I love the analogy about being second best in the country AND in his family.....

I am a big stickler, as you are for spelling....Drives me bonkers when folks screw up spelling...

Backofpack 5/16/08, 8:47 AM  

Sawry Donald. I have never watched a bee. Bumbel bees hoping from flour to flour, shur. Butt no speling bees becuz I'm to intellgent four that much telvishun. I meen, goly gee, evryone lerned how to spell in, like, I don now, third grade or so, rite?

Thomas 5/17/08, 5:17 AM  

*groan* Not the spelling bee AGAIN!

Rainmaker 5/17/08, 8:19 AM  

Well... I guess that answers the question about what on earth you think about when your out running 50+ miles.

Out of all of the things in the entire world that I would have thought you would be thinking about...that was not one of them. ;)

I'm pretty sure I flunked out of the grade school spelling bee before we even got on the stage.

RunBubbaRun 5/19/08, 3:33 AM  

The funny thing is, I don't watch much sports unless it is Tri or running related. But I will sit down and watch the spelling Bee.

I'm always impressed on how they try to figure out how to spell a word.

Thanks for the heads up on the time slot...

Hope the running funk has passed you by..

jen 5/19/08, 3:20 PM  

Great post! I am fascinated by the super spellers. Personally, I am a terrible speller, and have probably spelled several words wrong already in this comment. (spelt?)

By the way, I just added Spellbound to my netflix queue. Q-u-e-u-e.

MMan 5/22/08, 7:50 PM  

Excellent!

I'm looking forward to your write-up on the 2008 Bee.

I'mm picking Kavya Shivashankar to win.

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