Tuesday, February 15, 2011

From the vault: At the National Spelling Bee

A little ping of memory rang in my head this morning when I saw the results of the Observer's Regional Spelling Bee.

The third-place finisher was Tanner Winchester, a home-schooled kid from Waxhaw. I haven't seen Tanner in a few years, but I know him. His older brother is Marshall Winchester -- the best speller from these parts in recent history.

In 2004, Marshall tied for fourth at the National Spelling Bee in Washington. I've covered a bunch of competitive events -- the Panthers' Super Bowl, a few Final Fours, the ACC Tournament -- but that spelling bee was more dramatic than any of those. I was standing about 25 feet away when this happened to Akshay Buddiga, one of the other contestants:

I can't tell you how much I love that he got up and SPELLED THE WORD RIGHT.

Here's the story from Marshall's final day at the Bee that year. Some days -- most days -- I feel really lucky to have this job. This was one of those days.


June 4, 2004

WASHINGTON -- Marshall Winchester had planned a graceful exit.

A couple of days ago he went to his friend Nupur Lala, who won the 1999 National Spelling Bee. He asked if she would escort him offstage when he got knocked out of this year's bee.

She said: "Marshall, I don't think you're going out anytime soon."

Smart girl.

Ten million spellers entered local bees this year. Of those, 265 made it to the national bee.

And on Thursday, Marshall Winchester of Mineral Springs tied for fourth.

Marshall, who's 12 and home-schooled, won $1,625, a prime seat at tonight's banquet, and newfound celebrity.

Kids lined up for his autograph. A parent came up to him and called him a hall-of-famer: "If there was a Cooperstown for spelling, you oughta be in it."

An N.C. blogger named Mr. Sun rooted for him online, posting a picture of Mel Gibson in "Braveheart" as inspiration.

Still, the thing that made Marshall the happiest all day was the word "zarzuela."

Zarzuela is the musical theater or light opera of Spain. More important, it's a word Marshall knows, and it got him past the seventh round. He had missed in that round last year and ended up tied for 12th. Marshall's only goal this year was to finish better than that.

When the pronouncer said "zarzuela, " Marshall's reply was: "Really?"

And when he spelled it right, he screamed "YES!", threw up his arms, and ran two rows past his seat before he circled back and found it.

By then the spelling bee had turned into a miniseries, full of joy, humor, agony, and a moment you'll probably see on ESPN's "SportsCenter" for the rest of your life.

At the start of Round 6 - on live TV - Akshay Buddiga of Colorado Springs tried to tackle "alopecoid." As he stood there thinking, apparently the word caught him flush on the jaw - he reeled for a couple of steps and then fell flat on his back across the feet of the spellers behind him.

Everybody thought he was out cold. Some of the grown-ups rushed toward the stage. But after a moment he got up, wobbled to the mike - and spelled the word right.

From then on they brought a chair to the mike every time it was his turn. And somehow he lasted all the way to the end, finishing second when he missed "schwarmerei" in Round 14.

By then, his opponent - David Tidmarsh of South Bend, Ind. - could barely breathe. But he spelled "gaminerie" to clear that round, and then "autochthonous" to win the bee.

After "zarzuela" in Round 7, Marshall nailed "vendaval" (an autumnal storm on the Mexican coast) in Round 8. He raised his arms again and ran "Rocky"-style back to his chair.

By the end of that round there were five spellers left. The families of the remaining spellers had been invited to sit at the side of the stage. Marshall's dad, Eric, and mom, Grindl, squeezed close. Marshall's little brother, Tanner, scrunched down in his mom's lap. It was cold in the Grand Hyatt ballroom but Eric kept wiping sweat.

Round 9.

Two spellers got words right. One missed. Then Marshall walked to the front of the stage, grabbed the mike in his right hand, leaned so close you could hear him breathe through the speakers.

Jacques Bailly, the official pronouncer, said the word: "vimineous."

Marshall stared. "Definition, please?"

"Of or producing long, slender twigs or shoots."

Marshall usually asks lots of questions, loud and rapid-fire.

This time he just touched his forehead to the mike.

After a second he raised up, asked about the part of speech, the alternate definition, the main definition one more time.

Then he leaned in.


The head judge nods if you get a word right. She rings a bell if you get it wrong. Marshall watched as she reached for the bell.

The crowd applauded in respect as he went over to the side of the stage and into his mother's arms. For a few minutes he stared at the big screen that showed his word, and the way he had spelled it, and a red E beside, for error.

But soon enough he was laughing with his family. And when the bee was over it seemed like half the audience wanted to meet him.

Yes, he told everybody, he wants to come back. (He's a seventh-grader, and you can qualify through eighth grade.) Yes, he had a great time. And yes, he knew the word that David Tidmarsh spelled to win the bee.

"Maybe I can win next time, " he said. "But I don't know. Fourth is amazing."

About that time his friend Nupur came over. It turned out that he needn't have worried her about escorting him off the stage. He stayed on all the way to the end.

"Congratulations, " she said, wrapping her arms around him, and the kid who was so cool under pressure stood there in full blush.

For the first time all week, he couldn't say a word.