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How Spelling Imitates the World Series


Matthew Evans, managing a post-interview smile.

Is spelling a sport? I pondered that question while listening to the definition of "duroc" ("A breed of large, vigorous red lard-type hogs of American origin") and then, more seriously, when pre-Bee favorite Matthew Evans was a surprise casualty of the next-to-last semifinal round, missing "secernent" by going with a final "a" instead of "e."

Evans--a five-time national participant--and his family retreated to the Grand Hyatt's Cherry Blossom room while the sports media gathered outside to wait: the AP, ESPN's Erin Andrews, the Washington Post. Pro sports leagues have a brief cooling off period before their locker rooms are open to the media vultures; spellers use their own discretion, and now the doors stayed closed. Several spellers who were eliminated after Evans emerged while the minuets ticked by; one, Long Island's Zachary Zagorski, proudly emerged with two bottles of apple juice.

"They said feel free to take the snacks from the trays," he explained, "so I felt free to take the snacks from the trays."

Soon, other spellers gathered around Zachary to discuss; "you were really awesome," previously fallen contestant Emily Temple-Wood told him.

Emily and her friend, the also-eliminated Courtney Chambers, had done their best to inject a sporting vibe into these proceedings. When Emily was eliminated, she pounded her chest and raised one arm; "that was so cool, I'm so awesome," she said. Chambers, meantime, had been leading a hooting chorus from the back that encouraged her still-alive friends; "we're surprised they haven't told us to shut up and get out," she said.

Chambers also formed a crew called "The Word Nerds," a crew boasting a special hand sign, requiring members to form a square out of their thumb and index finger. The square represented the 81st Spelling Bee, 81 being a perfect square; "you guys are awesome, I didn't think of that," Emily said. That was some wack athlete trickery, as was their sympathy for the still-missing Matthew Evans, who had received a standing ovation upon his exit.

"I cried," said Emily's mother, Laura Temple. "It broke my heart."

Parents and contestants who emerged from the Cherry Blossom room reported that Matthew was still in there; "he's feeling it more than most," one said. "We just know he's distraught," Emily added.

Finally, perhaps a half-hour after he had been eliminated, Matthew emerged; "sorry I was in there so long," he immediately said to Andrews, who had been waiting for an interview. After a commercial break, they spoke on camera; Evans's dad videotaped the proceedings, and Andrews then thanked the 13-year old home-schooled contestant for his time.

"He was a lot more composed than a lot of losing athletes I've interviewed," she later said. "He was more gracious, I think, than any athlete I've interviewed."

Matthew, meantime, told me that he wasn't particularly familiar with Andrews, seeing how he doesn't have ESPN at home. In any case, there were more hugs, more tears, words with family friends bearing "Live, Laugh and Spell" placards, a series of poignant television interviews, all that you'd expect from an athlete facing an end of an era, a final, nationally televised loss that, while inevitable, still felt like some sort of mistake.

"Matt, great job," said Zachary Zagorski, who by this point had distributed his free apple juice. Matthew and Zachary discussed their missed words; the former correctly spelled the latter's miss. "It's the luck of the words," Zachary observed.

"So, you busy this afternoon, or do you want to go to the Air and Space Museum with us?" he then offered. Matthew considered, and said he'd get back to him.

I mentioned earlier those cooling-off periods in pro sports leagues; after particularly tough losses, many players--including many well-paid stars--often slink out some back entrance, shedding the media before the locker room doors are even open. I had speculated that Matthew might do the same, and I asked him about his time in the Cherry Blossom room.

"I was just disappointed," he said. "I'm still disappointed, but I knew I had to come out here eventually."

Anyhow, the competitors have scattered until tonight's primetime ABC broadcast, with six girls and six boys left. Fellow five-timer Tia Thomas is still alive, but this has something of the feel of George Mason at the Final Four. Upsets are great, but when the bright lights turn on, you kind of want to see U-Conn. on the stage, attempting to spell "ophthalmoplegia."

By Dan Steinberg  |  May 30, 2008; 4:03 PM ET
Categories:  Weirdness  
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