Is Spelling a Sport, and Other Questions
Spellers are quotable in pretty much the same ratio as pro athletes, from what I can tell. Some turn out to be Gilbert Arenas-like, such as Nicholas Bernard Rushlow, who carries a lucky pendant with a photo of his Bichon Frise puppy, named cosmotellurian ("relating to heaven and earth.") Others turn out to be Ryan Zimmerman; one young chap managed to conduct an entire five-minute interview without actually saying a word. And still others trended toward LeBron James. "I don't believe in luck," straight-faced Stephen Hartline of Ohio.
Indeed, the spellers have different opinions on virtually every spelling-related question you could think of during their 30-minute breaks from competition. Like, nerves? Some laugh at your nerves. Others, like Tianna Beckley of North Pole, Alaska, readily cop to them. She missed "pharmacist" today, which she based entirely on a case of the jitters.
"It feels like you're famous," she told me. "Lots of pressure." And that's 24 hours before the lights go on in primetime.
Some believe strongly in the merits of study, spending up to 20 hours per weekend for months. Others, well, don't.
"For Nationals? Probably an hour before I got here," said Caroline Bell, 14, of California. "I thought about it, but I decided it wasn't worth it. I was already at the National Spelling Bee, I already won $100."
"That's a jaded view," said her mom, Melanie, who pointed out that Caroline had actually been studying since they arrived in D.C.
Some believe that spelling is a sport, and here, their rationale was always the same.
"If it's on ESPN, that probably makes it a sport," said Drew Hodson, 14, of Indiana.
"They have it on ESPN, so I guess," seconded Joshua Casquejo from Jersey.
"It's on ESPN, so I guess you could say so," thirded John Flinn, 14, of North Carolina. "Of course, they also have hot-dog eating contests," he noted, which was the proper response.
(Point of fact: for the first time this year, the AP is moving Spelling Bee stories on its sports wire.)
Others classified it as a hobby. "This isn't athletic at all," Bell argued. And then there was the final's host, Tom Bergeron, from America's Funniest Home Videos and Dancing With the Stars.
"Uhhhhh, no, I don't think so," he said, to the eternal question of is it or isn't it. "I think sports require physical activity."
Some said the Bee heavyweights--your Kavya Shivashankars and Sidharth Chands--were actually intimidating, worthy of autographs and dim hopes. Juan Jose del Valle Coello estimated his chances at 0.00000001 percent. "I highly doubt it," said Michaela Minock, when asked if she would win. Others wouldn't be bowed.
"They're the same as us, they just know how to spell words better," Casquejo said.
"I just tell them how much I study," joked Yulkendy Valdez of St. Louis. "I just want to see intimidating, so they look at me, too."
Another eternal question concerns the real-world application; if these kids are neurosurgeons 20 years from now, will it help to know how to spell "koinonia?"
"We're building brain muscle here, we're building synaptic tissue," ABC's Bergeron said. "These kids, their ability to visualize, to retain information, to discipline themselves, to compete on this level...These are pretty motivated, type-A personalities. Who I've just annoyed by saying it's not a sport. I change my mind. They might be the neurosurgeon I get. They might be going, 'I saw that interview you did in 2009 with The Washington Post. Oops. Try walking now, Bergeron."
And jokes aside, the spellers said their teachers send other kids in their directions for help, that it never hurts to show people a deduction-based ability, that "some people think good spelling is a sign of intelligence," as Hodson put it. He said he spells better than his parents, which made me wonder whether that made him smarter.
"I would agree," he said.
So he's like a spelling superhero?
"Well, I'm not sure what problems that will solve," he noted. "I'LL BORE YOU TO DEATH."
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