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On Spelling Bee Pressure

My Spelling Bee day started on the sixth floor of the Grand Hyatt, in makeup, with ESPN's Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic, watching a review of an incorrect ruling on a word that had actually been spelled correctly. The ruling was fixed. Claire Zhang was saved by instant replay.

My day continued with the saga of big favorite Samir Patel, the five-time competitor, who missed a word he said he knew ("clevis"), received a standing ovation from the crowd and his competitors, then blamed himself for overthinking and apologized to his father, who said he had nothing to apologize for.

These are spellers. (Lawrence Jackson - AP)

"This is my last chance, and I'm really sorry that I messed it up because I knew the word," Samir was saying to the media throng. "And it's no one's fault but my own."

I asked ESPN's Stuart Scott for a sports analogy.

"It's like the Mavericks losing in the first round," he said. "That's exactly what it is, the Mavericks losing in the first round this year of the NBA playoffs."

"A combination of disappointment, I think, and disbelief," Greenberg said on air.

Samir told the media crowd that he would continue his home-schooling and begin concentrating on his mathematical interests, and then suddenly we were all in some back hallway trying to figure out whether his family was challenging the ruling based on some pronunciation issues, with officials and parents dodging interview requests and the whole deal, although his father eventually provided a bit of help. ("Possibly," he said, regarding whether pronounciation was the issue.)

The challenge, which by all accounts focused on the second syllable of the missed word, was denied. Official Pronouncer Dr. Jacques A. Bailly gave some great interviews on the subject, explaining that when the judges consulted with him, their questions were "all about the dotted schwa."

(The AP's Joseph White, our nation's greatest Spelling Bee reporter, just told me he hopes the sequel to "Akeelah and the Bee" will be called "Revenge of the Dotted Schwa.")

"The dotted schwa can have two sounds, basically," Dr. Jacques told me. "It can go from an 'uh' to an 'ih,' but any one person really only pronounces it one way. So one person won't sometimes say 'habit,' and at other times say 'habut.' However they say that, they'll say that phoneme the same way everywhere that dotted schwa is. That's the idea. I think I said 'clevis.' Somebody might say it 'clevus,' but then they would be the sort of person that would say 'habut.' I don't know of anybody that says 'habut.' Do you have 'habuts' or do you have 'habits'?"

I have no idea. I do know that a TV crew from Canada's CTV was just then interviewing Stuart Scott about the Bee; "what makes sports compelling is the drama involved," he said. "It's handling yourself under pressure. It's how your heart and your stomach feel when you're doing it. It's what we have right now. I played sports all my life. There's no less pressure here than there is on any kind of sporting field."

I would agree with that. This hotel had more tension than the set of The View, certainly more than RFK Stadium on a typical sleepy Thursday night. And for the record, pressure makes my skin itch.

Anyhow, for lack of anything better to do, the CTV then interviewed me. One of the questions was whether this is all too much pressure for a bunch of 11- or 12- or 13-year-olds; with the bright lights, the piercing dings for incorrect answers, the ESPN personalities, the nationwide ABC audience.

I babbled on for a few minutes. Then I went to ask the experts, ESPN's Mike and Mike, whom I was supposed to be following.

"Listen, the way we are nowadays in our society, all kids start competing at a young age," Golic told me. "Look at the soccer fields, the baseball fields, the football fields, basketball, lacrosse, everything. Everybody competes early. Gone are the days of just going and playing....This is just another part of competition."

Not in keeping with their radio shtick, Greenberg agreed.

"The kids that are playing baseball, that kid drops a flyball in the outfield on TV and loses the Little League World Series, it's the same kind of pressure," he said. "I just think it is so great that they're celebrating these kids who are not the kids that you usually celebrate. I went to Northwestern, and when our football team was getting destroyed by Michigan and Ohio Sate we used to chant 'It's all right, it's ok, you're going to work for us some day,' and that's who these kids are.

"At school, this might not be the thing that makes you popular. What makes you popular is being the captain of the basketball team. But you know what, these kids are going to be running science labs and Fortune 500 companies some day, and the captain of the football team is going to be looking for a job."

"Whoa, whoa," Golic said, although in truth, this was very nearly what Stuart Scott had said after his interview with Samir earlier, that Samir would one day be the boss of us all. So I pointed out that I did fairly well in my own Spelling Bee career, but that rather than running a science lab or a Fortune 500 company, I'm a low-rent blogger chasing after 12-year-old kids for interviews in the basement of a hotel.

"Well, it doesn't always work," Greenie acknowledged. "It's not a lock."

By Dan Steinberg  |  May 31, 2007; 4:59 PM ET
Categories:  Weirdness  
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