Hereford Middle School seventh grader Nicole Tsygan — one of two Baltimore students who earned a spot in the Scripps National Spelling Bee — advanced to the bee’s finals Wednesday evening. Just 41 of the 515 competitors reached this level. One other Marylander, Saketh Sundar from Ellicott City, also advanced to the finals.
Tsygan took the stage for round three wearing a bee-themed outfit. With her black top, yellow scarf and black skirt with yellow sunflowers, she blended well with the bee-and-honeycomb motif onstage. Stepping forward to the microphone, she appeared calm and collected.
Looks can be deceiving.
“I was internally panicking to such an extreme level,” she says. “I was like: ‘ohmygosh ohmygosh, what is [my word] going to be?”
Dr. Jacques Bailly, the bee’s pronouncer, enunciated Nicole’s word in a clear voice decidedly devoid of any regional accents: “Assimilate.”
Nicole realized with excitement she knew this word well.
“And then I thought: ‘Well, that was anti-climactic.’”
To reach the finals, spellers had to spell their words correctly in the first three rounds. (In round three Wednesday, around 30 percent of spellers were eliminated.) For the spellers remaining after round three, judges tallied scores from a preliminary spelling and vocabulary test to determine who would advance to the finals. Only 41 of the 300 or so remaining spellers made the cut.
Tsygan is a first-generation American, born in Baltimore and residing in Parkton with her Russian mother, Ukrainian father and her sister Victoria. She earned her spot in the national bee through a program called ‘RSVBee,’ a new invitational program for current school and former national bee champions. Because of this program, the number of national bee spellers nearly doubled this year — from 291 spellers in 2017 to 516 this year.
Scripps National Spelling Bee Executive Director Paige Kimble said the change was made to “level out” the disparities in regional competitions. “In one area, all you have to do is top 25 school bee champions,” Kimble said. “In other areas, in order to get here, you have to top more than 1,400 school bee champions. It’s a much steeper climb for them to get to the national finals.” Out of 855 RSVBee applicants, 238 were invited to compete, including Tsygan.
To prepare, Tsygan studied “a lot” and even recruited her friends to help her. “I asked my friends to give me words whenever I could, which was really helpful. I also read a lot. The books I read generally have very interesting words, difficult words or words you wouldn’t see normally.” She told bee officials she usually reads sci-fi and fantasy genres.
Joining her in representing Baltimore was Sophia Clark, a sixth grader at Friends School of Baltimore. Clark is new to the world of competitive spelling: Vocabulary lists only recently edged out Clark’s artistic hobbies of drawing, painting and sculpting. Clark also loves baking and plays Junior Roller Derby for Maryland Area Roller Sports.
Clark won her first bee only a few months ago, and to her own surprise, kept on winning.
“My English teacher announced we’re having a classroom spelling bee. I won, and I was like, ‘Oh, OK, That’s cool,’” Clark says. “Then I went to the school spelling bee with all the middle schoolers. And I was fully prepared to not be the first one out and not be the last one out. And then I won the school spelling bee.”
She entered the regional bee with the same middling hopes. “I studied a lot so that when I went to the regionals I would at least do decently,” Clark says.
But Clark’s hard work served her well. She recalls: “There were four people left. I was kind of amazed I got this far. Three other girls went up, and they all spelled their words wrong. I went to microphone, and they said, ‘Sophia, if you spell this word right you’ll be the winner of the spelling bee.’ They said, ‘Your word is versatile.” And I just started screaming in my head, ‘I know how to spell that word! I know how to spell that word!’ I spelled it right and they said, ‘Congratulations, you are the winner of the Baltimore Bee.’ I was so excited, and happy and just elated that I had made it this far, and I was going to nationals. It was so cool. It was just amazing.”
At the national bee, Clark’s winning streak was halted by a word that isn’t commonly heard: ‘zucchetto.’ (Per Merriam-Webster: “a skullcap for a Roman Catholic cleric.”)
But, if she dons her studying zucchetto, there’s always next year.
The Scripps National Spelling Bee finals will air today on ESPN.