The 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee, held this week at Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, was the largest ever, with 562 competitors ranging in age from 7 to 15.
Two spellers from Maryland: Saketh Sundar from Howard County and Anson Cook from Montgomery County, advanced to the finals on May 30, and Saketh was one of eight spellers to become a co-champion of the bee, making history as the first group to share the title in the bee’s history.
Saketh, 13, is from Clarksville and attends Clarksville Middle School. This year’s bee was his fourth and this winning word was bougainvillea. He wins a $50,000 prize and has the chance to participate in a group media tour on “Good Morning America,” “Today Show,” “New Day,” “CBS This Morning,” “Live with Kelly and Ryan” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”
Baltimore’s city and county each sent a speller. Brooklyn Park Middle School eighth grader Thevy Mak, 14, of Brooklyn, and Friends School of Baltimore sixth grader Henry Turner, 12, of Baltimore, proved there are as many approaches to the top-level contest as there are contestants. Some, like Henry, feel the excitement and intensity of the competition. Others, like Thevy, take a laid-back approach.
Both won their local and regional bees. How far would they get on the national level, at the largest and most competitive bee in its history?
To prepare, Henry “worked assiduously,” according to his mother Felicity Turner. He had to squeeze an hour of spelling (or more) every day in between his other interests: playing guitar, singing in the Maryland State Boychoir, playing baseball and running cross-country. “You just have to want it,” Henry says.
Thevy, on the other hand, sheepishly admits: “I’ve only been studying for two weeks.” But her mother Sheena Mak says she’s prepared: “She has a knack for figuring out how words are spelled.”
When spellers arrive, they take a written test with 12 spelling words and 14 vocabulary challenges.
“It was a monster of a test,” Henry emphatically declared. “It was crazy.” Henry and Felicity returned to their room afterwards to look up the test words and estimate Henry’s score, but Thevy didn’t check, according to Sheena. Thevy told Sheena after the test, “I’m done with it,” and didn’t look back.
With the test complete, all 562 spellers advanced to round two in front of ESPN’s cameras. Spellers were given a list of 600 words to study, making this round “easy” in Thevy’s opinion.
Thevy says she wasn’t nervous and even told her friends at Brooklyn Park Middle School to not watch her on ESPN during the school day. “No, just do your work,” Thevy says she told friends.
Henry, on the other hand, “was super nervous.” The worst nerves hit him “right before you’re about to spell, when you’re standing on stage, waiting.” Stepping up to the judges was easier. “We’re all here for spelling,” he says. “That’s the best part.”
Henry correctly spelled “transpontine” and Thevy nailed “intrinsic,” placing them among the 518 spellers who advanced to …
In this round, the competition heats up. Any word in the Merriam-Webster online unabridged dictionary could fly at them.
Pronouncer Dr. Jacques Bailly told reporters he believed the bee was growing tougher each year. “There are five times as many spellers” as there were in 1980, when Bailly took the national trophy. “We have a much higher level of competition.”
“It’s like the Olympics. You see the records fall,” Bailly says. “They’re studying harder. Yeah, it seems really hard now. They just won’t miss unless you give them those hard words.”
The words weren’t difficult enough to topple Thevy and Henry. Thevy correctly spelled “curiologic” and Henry correctly spelled “arbitrariness.” Would their success on stage propel them into the semifinals?
Now, with 369 of the original 562 kids still in the competition, all but 50 would be eliminated offscreen. Results of the preliminary test determine which 50 spellers advance to the semifinals. Thevy’s and Henry’s parents would be emailed at 4:45 p.m. Wednesday with the results.
If she advanced to finals or surpassed her own expectations, Thevy said she’d go home “like nothing happened.” Her mother backs up Thevy’s assertion. “She was like that after winning the regional bee,” Sheena says.
But Henry says, “A party would be great,” and gives his mother a sideways glance.
The Turner family spent Wednesday afternoon having lunch with the other Maryland spellers they met, playing Bananagrams and playing at the pool. By 5 p.m., Thevy and Henry learned, via email, they would be halted in their quest for world spelling domination (at least this year), tying for 51st place.
They’d made it far. They had conquered the local and regional tests. They’d bested their words in national, televised competition. They made their families, friends and teachers proud. And with the tens of thousands of words they’ve learned in preparation, it’s reasonable to assume they will ace their verbal SATs.
Felicity declared the experience a winner. “It was so wonderful,” Felicity says. “We learned so much.”