Spelling Bee Contestants Take the Stage in Washington, D.C.

Former spelling bee champions advise new contestants: Luck matters.

May 27, 2009, 10:30 AM

May 27, 2009 -- For the 293 spelling bee contestants swarming Washington this week there is but one goal: Make it to the Thursday night championship, spell down the best of the best and clutch the Scripps National Spelling Bee champion's trophy.

The event has become a national spectacle, and returning this year are a few fan favorites. Michigan's own Sidharth Chand, 13, who placed second in last year's finals; three-time top 10 finisher Kavya Shivashankar, also 13, of Kansas; and Sriram Hathwar, 9, who returns for the second year as the bee's youngest contestant.

Also familiar to fans and contestants alike is Dr. Jacques Bailly, the bee's official pronouncer since 2003, himself the 1980 bee champion.

And this year's competition is not without its own distinctions. For the first time in bee history, China is represented at the Grand Hyatt with speller No. 46, Kun Jacky Qiao, who won the Shanghai Community Center's war of words in March. Qiao, a Chinese-Canadian, gained entry in the national bee by winning a contest made up of competitors from 16 American international schools across Beijing and Shanghai. The Shanghai Community Center was allowed by Scripps to participate in the Bee through a sponsorship awarded on a case-by-case basis to organizations to English-speaking populations around the world.

Former "word nerds" -- both former champions and champions at heart -- agree: No matter how much you've prepared for that moment in the spotlight, there's a certain X-factor needed to take home the trophy.

"One thing that I always tell kids who want to compete is that there's a huge element of luck in who ends up becoming the champion at the end," said 23-year-old Nupur Lala, who took home the big prize in 1999 and is currently doing neuroimaging research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Perhaps nobody knows the pressure that is felt under the lights of the spelling bee than the true veterans, especially those spellers who were featured in the 2002 documentary film "Spellbound," which captured Lala's journey to champion and changed the face of the bee substantially.

"Spellbound" tracked eight contestants, word-by-word, from their hometowns to the nation's capital. Lala won the crown by correctly spelling logorrhea, which means "excessive wordiness."

Angela Arenivar, also of "Spellbound" fame, competed in the spelling bee in 1998 and 1999 and said she noticed a marked difference at the bee following the film's debut when she returned to Washington for a screening at the 2003 bee.

"It definitely seemed more crazed," Arenivar remembers. "Before ['Spellbound'], there really wasn't much publicity around the bee. I think 'Spellbound' showed that the spelling bee is like any sports event -- there's a high level of competition there, but there's a lot of luck involved."

Spelling Bee Not for the Faint of Heart

Akshay Buddiga, a rising sophomore at Duke University who made national headlines when he fainted on stage during the 2004 spelling bee, says it's important to work hard, but pressures of the stage can be immense.

"There's nothing really like it and you can't prepare for that," Buddiga said. "It's nothing like anything you experience in your life. All the attention is on you, all the lights and the cameras and the pressure of being in the moment."

Another "Spellbound" alum, April DeGideo, who graduated from New York University in 2007 and now works at a Philadelphia publishing company, worked on the bee's college crew from 2003 to 2007 and "got to see how the bee changed" after the movie.

"All the media attention -- it was nothing like that when I was in it," she said. "I remember thinking it was a big deal that I was getting interviewed for my local TV station."

Thirty-one-year-old Joanna Lagatta, the 1991 champion, wonders if she would have been intimidated by the media frenzy of today's bee.

Now a neonatologist at Children's Hospital in Milwaukee, Lagatta says learning about "performance under pressure" under the stage lights "has been helpful to me."

Also new this year: The Scripps showdown will be connecting with the outside world via Twitter.

Tim King, spokesperson for the bee, said using Twitter was a "pretty natural easy decision to make" since so many bee enthusiasts were already members of the social networking site.

Tweets range from audience moments ("A mom waves to her son and yells, 'Hi, Adam!'") to behind-the-scenes details ("#12 traced the letters of pelican while correctly spelling the word) to more poetic couplets:"Some spellers chat; others fidget; some sit in silence. In just a few moments, they'll have their chances to shine."

The bee format has also been tweaked to give every speller two chances to spell on stage -- spellers are only eliminated after two misspellings.

King says it's likely to make the day "a little bit longer" but well worth it for the kids who have worked so hard to get there.

Still Spellbound by the Spelling Bee

Years removed from their time in the spelling bee spotlight, Lala, Arenivar and DeGideo wax nostalgic about the old days.

"I've never felt so in demand in my life, and it's never happened ever since," Lala said.

Beyond the fleeting publicity, Lala says bee participants "develop an appreciation for words and a very different relationship with language" than others'. "It's much deeper, much richer, something that will serve you your whole life," she says. "To study something with that depth is a really rewarding feeling."

DeGideo described it as "the most interesting thing that I've done so far."

"My whole life since then -- people always ask about the spelling bee," she said.

Arenivar, who graduated this May with a master's degree in Spanish from the University of New Mexico, said she "feels nostalgic to this very day" when she sees promotional clips for bee season.

"I remember the bee really afforded me this opportunity to meet these kids that were like me. Other kids that were into words and language like I was. To me, the spelling bee wasn't just about spelling. It was about meeting other people, I remember some of the people better than the words]," Arenivar said.

And to this day, the words are not easily forgotten.

Lagatta won on antipyretic.

Arenivar went out on heleoplankton; Buddiga on schwarmerei; DeGideo on terrene.

When asked to recall them -- whether spelled in a moment of triumph or defeat -- nearly all paused and asked, with laughter, sometimes without a hint of irony, "Need me to spell that for you?"

The Scripps National Spelling Bee Finals will be shown on Thursday night at 8 p.m. ET on ABC, and this year's champion will take home more than $40,000 in prizes.

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