WASHINGTON – Illinois sent 26 spellers to the Scripps National Spelling Bee this year, — a record number for the state — and after Tuesday’s opening rounds, 22 earned slots in the third round on Wednesday, correctly spelling such words as “sluvrian” and “ekphrasis.”
Illinois ranks fifth in the number of spellers competing this year. The spellers hail from all over the Prairie State – from cities as big as Chicago and small as Baileyville, population 534. The spelling bee tends to favor older, more educated spellers, and this year’s crop of Illinoisans is no exception. The spellers’ average age is 12.8 and their median grade is 7. That’s on par with the nearly 520 spellers competing at the event, whose average age is 12.7 and median grade is 7.
After the first elimination day, 22 Illinois spellers will continue on Wednesday, competing for the championship, $40,000, an engraved trophy, national media appearances and a pizza party for the speller’s school.
One of those lucky 22 is 13-year-old Sophia Brown from Macomb, Illinois Brown spelled the noun “slurvian,” which means “speech characterized by slurring.”
Brown, who has long brown hair and a bright smile, said after her round two victory that she was excited to move forward, let alone be at the national spelling competition.
“We had to go through many competitions. It started in a classroom spelling bee. Then it went to the school and then the county, then state and then nationals,” she said. “You really just had to work for it.”
Brown studied Latin roots to learn the words, which will help if she achieves her goal of becoming a pediatrician. Brown has always earned straight As, but at her public junior high school she now earns straight A pluses.
Her favorite word is monotonous. “M-O-N-O-T-O-N-O-U-S. It’s ironic,” she said.
Another of the victors is Gabriel Ennin, an eighth grader from Ohio who moved to Plainsfield, Illinois. One of the last to spell in his group, he correctly spelled the noun “ekphrasis,” which means “a literary description of or commentary on a visual work of art,” according to Merriam-Webster.
Ennin is a three-time national spelling bee contender, having competed in sixth and seventh grade and finishing in 46th and 189th place respectively for his school in Ohio. Now in his final eligible year of competing, he’s resting before the next round of competition.
“You never know whether or not you made it. When you get told, if you get told, you didn’t make it, it kind of breaks your heart,” said Ennin. “But you got to live with it and see if you come back next year. But if you’re an eighth grader, in my case, there is no next year.”
He has always savored the experience, which he said is good at bringing kids together.
“When I first came here, I was a bit introverted because I didn’t want to make friends. I was just trying to focus on winning the bee,” he said. “When I got here, a lot of other kids, older kids I should say, told me that I should make some friends because here you can make a ton of friends.”
While spellers like Brown and Ennin prepare for the next rounds of competition, other spellers plan for life after the competition and the week that remains.
Only four Illinois contestants were eliminated Tuesday, including seventh grader Shria Halkoda, who misspelled “omnilegent,” which means “reading or having read everything.”
Halkoda said she was disappointed she “got out on my first word” but that her nerves got the best of her. She put a lot of work into preparing for the spelling bee, too. Halkoda estimates she studied two or three hours a day on top of her homework. She even took a break from competitive swimming, where she competes in the 50m freestyle and 100m breaststroke, to commit to studying.
“You don’t really want to memorize a bunch of words. That’s impossible,” Halkoda said. The key, said Halkoda, is to organize words based on patterns from that country’s origin and to create your own lists.
Halkoda, 13, wants to work in the math, science and business-related fields when she grows up, and said it would be cool to attend an Ivy League college. She plans to compete in next year’s spelling bee as an eighth grader.
Her advice for spellers still in the competition? “It’s not you against the other spellers. It’s you against the dictionary,” Halkoda said. “If you just imagine a giant dictionary in front of you, it gets easier,” she said.
Caroline Otto, a shy 13-year-old with curly red hair from the sleepy town of Baileyville, was one of the first to spell in her group and also was eliminated. Her word was “ectocanthion,” which means “the point at which the outer ends of the upper and lower eyelids meet.” Otto spelled ectocanthion with an “-eon” instead of the “-ion,” despite remembering studying the word.
“Usually in Greek ‘e’ is more common, but my mom told me the suffix ‘eon’ is more related to Greek mythical gods, and ‘ion’ is more a medical term,” she said. “Ectocanthion is a medical term.
“I studied the word, but there were so many words.”
Unlike most of her fellow Illinois competitors, Otto is homeschooled; she attends a local homeschooling co-op where she studies the classics, including Latin. She competed against other homeschoolers to represent the co-op and then won the regional championship against public and private school kids to compete at the national bee. She graduated from middle school only a few weeks ago.
When she’s not studying for spelling bees, Otto spends her time playing the piano and painting watercolors. She wants to be a teacher when she grows up and is excited to visit the Smithsonian this week.
Otto will age out of the competition next year, but that’s not stopping her from challenging her younger brother Charlie, who’s in fourth grade, to compete next year.
This year’s preliminary rounds air live on ESPN3 on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The primetime finals will air Thursday at 8:30 p.m. on ESPN.