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Is Spelling a Sport, and Other Questions

Best hair. (By Jacquelyn Martin - AP)

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.

Best prayer. (By Alex Wong - Getty)

"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."

By Dan Steinberg  |  May 27, 2009; 5:06 PM ET
Categories:  Weirdness  
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Next: Spellers Discuss Spelling, the Video


Did the Washington Nationals have any HR folks on site to recruit potential spellcheckers?

Posted by: disgruntledfan | May 27, 2009 5:36 PM | Report abuse

Actually, this an interesting concept. What constitutes a sport? I supoose that CW would say that it must involve some degree of physicality. That would seem to exclude spelling, poker, bridge, chess, checkers. But how much physical activity is required to make it a sport? Curling? Shuffleboard? Bocci ball? Croquet? Darts?At what point does a game become a sport? And is the definition culturally dependent?

Posted by: HLS69 | May 27, 2009 9:25 PM | Report abuse

this is interesting!

Posted by: suesue8709 | May 28, 2009 5:09 AM | Report abuse

I hope Hodson loses.

Posted by: sitruc | May 28, 2009 6:50 AM | Report abuse

Herding dogs work 10-14 hrs days 7 days a week for pat on the head, being told they are a good dog and they get fed. We do not use clickers or treats to train our dogs. Sorry my arm just can't hurl a treat 600 yards down field when my dog gets behind the sheep to lift them. 300 yards down field with accuracy but not 600yards. Our dogs work for praise. They can read both their sheep and human. And finally they can spell better than any of these kids. And the best part if your b*tch gets knocked up you can sell the kids and there are no college loans. Their dog of choice is working sheep. They live for it.

Posted by: sheepherder | May 28, 2009 7:12 AM | Report abuse

Before the kids run off and deem ESPN the arbiter of what is and what isn't sport, the "E" in ESPN stands for Entertainment and comes before the "S" for Sports.

Posted by: SuperG5 | May 28, 2009 2:39 PM | Report abuse

A spelling bee is a competition but not a sport. Golf, bowling, chess are in the same category.

Posted by: dcsportsdude | May 29, 2009 10:50 AM | Report abuse

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