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June 1, 2009

Great Moments in Spelling (Part VI)

It’s sometimes said that one of the most difficult feats in sports is to win when you’re expected to.

When all you hear in the days leading up the event is how the victory is yours to lose; when all of your competitors acknowledge you as the person to beat; when everybody in the stadium fully expects you to coast to the championship; those are the times when following through with all the predictions can be quite daunting – especially when the margin of error is razor thin. As thin as a single letter, for instance.

With that in mind, we’ll start the recap of the 2009 Scripps National Spelling Bee, which will be remembered as the story of one girl’s quest to fulfill the burden of expectations under the most intense pressure imaginable. Kavya Shivashankar, a 4-time NSB participant who placed 4th in last year’s event, was everybody’s pick to win – but in the past several years, every other kid who has entered the contest as the prohibitive favorite has gone home empty handed. Would Kavya capture that elusive combination of skill, savvy, and luck to finally grab the title? We’d have to wait until prime time to find out.

In the meantime, there were seven preliminary rounds to survive just to make the evening’s main event. Some highlights from the morning rounds:

(As usual, all indicated times are from the PDT broadcast, and all pictures courtesy of Reuters …)

7:04 AM: 41 spellers begin Round 4, the first round to be televised on ESPN – which speaks to the brutality of this competition. Nearly 300 spellers – all of whom are unquestionably, immensely talented kids – take part in the first three rounds, which means that barely 15% of them will ever see the lights of national TV during the preliminary rounds. I think you’d have a better percentage chance of making the finals of American Idol than Round 4 of the NSB.

7:15: ESPN made us wait 15 whole minutes before our first Erin Andrews appearance. She attended the pre-Bee barbecue where the kids do all kinds of fun activities and have races and play games against each other. Whenever they show the kids playing team events like softball, I’m always curious as to what names the opposite sides come up with: Consonants vs Vowels? Gerunds vs Participles? Dipthongs vs Schwas? I’m sure these brainiacs must invent some pretty clever names.

Dr Bailly

7:18: So far, the most pleasant surprise at this year’s Bee are the sentences that seem like they were written by the Tonight Show staff. Whenever a contestant asks for the word to be used in a sentence, judge Jacques Bailly has something witty teed up. For kinetosis (motion sickness) he had, “The first annual Spelling Bee at Sea was also the last after the chaos caused by the spellers’ kinetosis.” For Beckmesser (a teacher of music overly reliant on rules or minutiae) the sentence was, "Kid Rock was seen leaving the club with a Beckmesser on each arm, demanding he practice more." I mean … did you ever think you’d hear a Kid Rock reference at the NSB? If they could somehow hire the Jonas Brothers as the house band to take us into commercial breaks, the ratings for this thing would be blockbuster.

8:09: Erin Andrews is interviewing a kid eating a cookie. Here’s the deal: I don’t know what kind of player 9-year-old Sriram Hathwar is with the ladies at his local elementary school, but of this much I feel quite certain: when Erin Freaking Andrews is talking to you, swallow your cookie, kid! Or at least offer to share. On the plus side, this kid is the envy of about 10 million high-school and college-aged guys right now.

8:56: O Canada, Where Art Thou? At the risk of offending anybody, I’ll just ask: what the heck happened to Canada? In previous years they sent large contingents of spellers who made it deep into the competition, with Canadian spellers even finishing as runners-up in 2006 and 2007. The Canucks were such a threatening force that I concocted this whole notion of the Maple Leaf Project taking place across our northern border, dedicated to intellectual domination of the United States. It added a new geopolitical dimension to the Bee that was equal parts exciting and terrifying.

Veronica Penny

The 2008 NSB saw the Canadian Massacre, where seven straight Canadian contestants were dinged out of the competition in Round 5 – so this year, I figured they’d return with a vengeance. However, in this year’s Round 5, the Canadians are again cut down like timber: Claudine Broussard misses eurystomatous (having a broad mouth), Canadian champ Laura Newcombe misses hyalithe (an opaque glass), and Veronica Penny misses macle (a flat diamond) – and just like that, our neighbors to the north are swept from the contest.

The Maple Leaf Project has clearly fallen on hard times (perhaps a victim of the economy?). Although I’m as patriotic as the next guy, this makes me kind of sad - in some ways I kind of miss the old rivalry. So step it up next year, Canada … for all of our sakes.

10:34: For an event where each person’s fate hinges on a single letter or syllable spoken incorrectly, this year’s Bee has been remarkably predictable through the morning rounds. Nearly all of the favorites - including Kavya - have made it to the prime-time telecast that begins with Round 7 later this evening.

Kavya looking strong

8:01 PM: Prime time! For some reason, each year ABC feels compelled to replace the morning round host – the very competent Chris McKendry – with Tom Bergeron for the evening session. I’m almost 100% certain that viewers aren’t tuning in to this event because of Bergeron’s star power - and somehow, having the “Funniest Home Videos” guy as master of ceremonies just reinforces the idea that good spellers are all nerds. Or maybe I’m just overly sensitive about this. At least they’ve kept Erin Andrews around for the sex appeal factor.

8:03: I often make hockey analogies during these Bee recaps, because the NSB usually takes place during the Stanley Cup finals, and because it often involves some US/Canada drama (or at least, it did, back when Canada used to be good at spelling). Hockey players are known for being freaks about superstition, and one of the highest commandments is that you NEVER touch the Stanley Cup unless you have won it. It’s disrespectful to the hockey gods, and it brings terrible karma upon your team.

I’m reminded of this during the opening montage featuring each kid holding the NSB trophy while he or she is introduced. There’s only one of the 11 finalists who sits next to the statue without touching it: Kavya Shivashankar. File this point away for future reference.

Neetu celebrates

8:25: Every year there seems to be one kid in the finals whose excitement and enthusiasm are contagious; this year, that kid is 13-year-old Neetu Chandak. After spelling ophelimity (economic satisfaction) correctly, she beams and pumps her arms and acts like the happiest kid in the world. Especially in comparison to the kids who gnash their teeth or cower behind their placards between rounds, it’s very delightful to watch.

Kennyi having some fun

8:30: We’re off to a fairly gentle start: Ten out of eleven contestants spell their Round 7 word correctly, Dr Bailly keeps bringing down the house with one-liner sentences, and Kennyi Aouad has won the crowd’s hearts by wearing a pair of fake glasses onstage in honor of Dr Bailly. Good times all around – it almost makes you forget that the night will end in heartbreak for all but one of these kids …

Sidharth struggling

… and the hammer falls suddenly: To most observers, the biggest challenge to Kavya winning this year’s title would be Sidharth Chand, who was runner-up in last year’s Bee. So it’s the biggest shock of the evening when Sidharth stumbles over apodyterium (a dressing room in an ancient Greek gymnasium) in Round 8 - and just like that, the path to victory seems a whole lot clearer for Kavya.

For the record, here’s an interesting NSB fact: no runner-up has ever won the Bee the following year. It’s like how the losing Super Bowl team never makes it back to the championship game, only this streak goes back twice as many years. There has to be some sociological hypothesis to draw from this – we need to get Malcolm Gladwell on the case.

8:54: Immediately after Sidharth gets taken out, happy-go-lucky Neetu gets bounced by derriengue (a paralytic disease affecting livestock). Upbeat to the end, she says “Ding!” to the judge before hearing the bell that seals her fate.

This Bee has gotten a whole lot meaner. Seven spellers remain at the end of Round 8.

9:04: Kavya’s now the clear favorite to win, but she’s going to have to earn it: every speller gets their Round 9 word correct. From this point on, every word is a battle.

9:07: Kyle Mou (right) has been the most soft-spoken contestant of the evening, and he looks to weigh about 70 pounds dripping wet - but he’s carrying a big stick thus far at the Bee. He’s also very familiar with words of French origin: in successive rounds, he nails avoirdupois (a unit of weight), plaidoyer (a plea made in court), and oeillade (a coquettish glance).

9:35: Unbelievable! All seven spellers sail through Round 10 as well. These aren’t sissy words, either: if you tell me you’ve ever heard of cretonne (an unglazed linen fabric), xebec (a Mediterranean sailing ship), or huisache (a thorny shrub), I’ll call you a liar.

9:51: That’s more like it: three spellers are finally eliminated in Round 11, and we’ve got our final four. Although the pressure is mounting, Kavya hasn’t blinked - she breezes through ecossaise (a lively dance tune) to make it to round 12.

9:58: Kyle Mou’s French karma runs out, as he runs into the “Greek to Latin to International Scientific to English combining form” schizaffin (slender and slight), and we’re down to three.

The stage gets lonlier

10:06: No one’s giving an inch: All three spellers nail their Round 13 words. Since we’ve officially gone over the allotted time, Tom Bergeron reassures us that we’ll still get to see the scheduled re-run of Gray’s Anatomy in its entirety. Good to know.

10:15: Just like that, the door opens: In Round 14, Aishwarya Pastapur misses menhir (a prehistoric monolith), and Tim Ruiter misses Maecenas (a generous benefactor), while Kavya coolly knocks out phoresy (a non-parasitic relationship between animals for transportation). She’s at the crest of the mountaintop – one more word will get her there.

10:16: Kavya’s a fantastic speller, but a terrible poker player: As soon as she hears the word Laodicean (indifferent in religion or politics), a small but very noticeable grin forms on Kavya’s face. She asks a couple of questions as a matter of formality, and to gain her composure before spelling the word correctly to win the championship.

10:17: Almost before she even finishes the word, Kavya’s dad leaps from his chair and rushes over to hug his daughter. The CEO of the Scripps Company comes over to congratulate her, and then – finally – Kavya takes hold of the trophy she’s pursued for four long years. It’s hers now, to visit relatives with, to take to parties, or to guzzle champagne from (oops, sorry – I’m thinking of hockey players again).

For any of us on the outside, it’s impossible to know the dedication these kids possess from day to day, month to month, and year after year in hopes of having a moment like this on the NSB stage. (On a related note: how come nobody has thought to create an extended-run reality TV show about these spellers? I’m almost positive that people would watch this.) What’s obvious, though, is how much they enjoy the practice, the camaraderie of their peers, and the competition of the Bee itself. Only one kid takes home the trophy, but everyone is better for having taken part.

If those aspects sound similar to ultras or triathlons, that’s probably not a coincidence – and maybe that’s why I like this event so much.

* See previous editions of this series on sidebar at right.


Anonymous,  6/2/09, 6:06 AM  

Inspiring. Give us more lead time next year, because you've convinced me to watch the NBS (as humbling as I know it will be). As someone who still has trouble differentating 'lose' from 'loose', it's easy to be overwhelmed. At least I learned another adjective to describe myself: I'm not laodicean. Now the challenge is to make that a redeaming quality.

Dave 6/2/09, 7:56 AM  

From a guy who can solve first order differential equations but has trouble spelling Cat if you spot me the C & T...how can anyone write a blog posting about a freaking spelling bee that keeps me entertained and reading the thing in it's entirity. (did I spell that write...i mean right.) Great post...good luck as the WS in a mere short 3 weeks....Look for my friend Dmitry....he's the crazy Urkrainian/Texan...

AKA Alice 6/3/09, 12:42 PM  

This is just an awesome post...I love the NSB for all the reasons you mentioned, and because I'm just humbled by these kids and their dedication. (The reference to getting Malcom Gladwell to investigate how it could be that no runner up has ever won the NSB the following year had me rolling!)

Once again. Beautiful writing. Thanks!

Formulaic 6/3/09, 9:23 PM  

Awesome post! I can't believe I read a post on the spelling bee and was very entertained!

You made it sound great!

Thanks for post. Next time it's on I need to check it out!

craig 6/3/09, 10:00 PM  

The National Geography Bee was aired in my area at the same time as the Spelling Bee.

Man, I was torn.

Gretchen 6/4/09, 12:16 PM  

Ooh, yes! I've been waiting for this post. I'm generally against spelling bees (I know, weird, right?) but after your write-up last year, I knew this was the way I could enjoy the event--through your eyes. Thanks!

Jean-Baptiste 6/7/09, 12:47 PM  


I'm a runner from France following your blog, and found this post quite entertaining. We do not have a similar TV show here. Sounds interesting.

Anyway, I have a question which may sound not really politically correct, but anyway... I also wanted to ask this after your previous posts about this TV show.

How come most kids who seem to do well in the show seem to be of foreign descent (not sure of my wording there)? Mostly from India or Asia, from their names ? I mean, from your accounting, it seems as there's no kids with a good old american name in there (Tim maybe?). I'm curious as to which facts could explain that.

I hope it's not rude to ask the question :-).

Thanks for the entertaining writing anyway.

Rainmaker 6/7/09, 3:56 PM  

I remember your post last year, and this one was just as awesome - I think even better.

I agree that a reality TV mini-show would be awesome. I did though enjoy the recent skit on the Tonight Show about the bee. Pretty funny.

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