Saturday, December 20, 2014

“A blood bath in the crying room”

Inside the vicious, brutal competition that is the National Spelling Bee

by Sarah Kliff on December 16, 2014

The National Spelling Bee is a bizarre ritual. Every spring, hundreds of middle-school students cram into a hotel ballroom and attempt to spell obscure words that few human beings have ever uttered — or will ever utter — in the course of their lifetimes.

Here's what's even weirder: more than one million people tuned in to watch the Scripps National Spelling Bee on ESPN, the network that has broadcast the competition every year since 1994. The "likes watching little kids spell big, weird words" demographic apparently demands a national cable showing.

"My first thought when they started broadcasting the bee was, 'Why would anybody care?'" says Katie Kerwin McCrimmon, the 1979 champion who subsequently worked for ESPN as a bee commentator. "The first year, it was on CNN and then ESPN wanted to broadcast it and there was a bit of a bidding war. ESPN seemed like such a mismatch to me, but they always said that when it went on in sports bars, people would just eat it up."

I'm a bit of a National Spelling Bee diehard. I quietly watched the semi-finals online at work (sorry, bosses) and actually went to the Spelling Bee finals in person this year (it was awesome). I like to pick favorites and root for them. The Spelling Bee finals are my favorite two hours that ESPN broadcasts all year.

What I love about the National Spelling Bee is that it's the nerds' moment in the spotlight. When else will you ever see so many pairs of glasses and teeth in braces and ill-fitting clothes on awkward middle-schoolers on a national television network?

For just a few hours, the geeks are the rock stars and the popular kids. This insane amount of work they've put in — studying massive lists of words, trying to memorize every weird contour of the English language — is actually paying off. The National Spelling Bee is the Super Bowl for nerds.

"It's a very strange celebration of the underdog," says Nupur Lala, who won the National Spelling Bee in 1999. Lala was also the subject of a 2002 documentary on the bee, called Spellbound, which followed eight contestants in the lead-up to the competition. "It's like these bizarre kids who maybe don't get noticed as much."

I've only been a Spelling Bee observer, never a contestant (I limited my geek extracurriculars to the Inglewood Junior High School Speech and Debate Team). But each year that I watch, I wonder what it's like to be up on that stage. How can one kid possibly know this many words? Are they freaking out internally? What is it like to win the Spelling Bee and, overnight, become a celebrity? Do the kids at your school think you've become cool — or just an even bigger weirdo?

I'm always curious what motivates the spellers, too. Deconstructing the English language's most obscure words is a gargantuan task. Who are the few hundred kids each year who decide that task is the thing they want to devote countless hours to accomplishing?

There are 86 students who have been crowned Spelling Bee champion. I talked to five of them, trying to understand: what's it like to win the Nerd Super Bowl?


The first spelling bee

1973-winner

Barrie Trinkle, the 1973 champion (courtesy of Barrie Trinkle)


Nupur Lala, 1999 champion: It's so embarrassing but it's kind of funny, how I got into spelling bees. I was awful with these grammar tests in the seventh grade. I could not identify a dangling participle to save my life, which is kind of the great irony.

There was a spelling bee in which anybody who participated was given extra credit. And I figured I could make up for some bad homework grades. I won the spelling bee, and I kept going along.

Barrie Trinkle, 1973 champion: One day they had this spelling bee in my class. I won the spelling bee. I have no idea what the words were. I'm sure they were pretty easy. The teacher said, "Great, on Friday we'll have the spelling bee for the whole school."

Scott Isaacs, 1989 champion: The first bee I was in was actually a makeshift bee. It took place in a shopping mall. But I just went just for the heck of it.

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon, 1979 champion: My older brother placed ninth in the National Bee and my sister placed seventh. We were known as "The Spelling Kerwins," and I wanted to do better. It was a thing at our school, too. I went to a Catholic school all the way through eighth grade. We had a couple of nuns who were great spelling coaches.

Dan Greenblatt, 1984 champion: It was fun. It was something that I've been kind of smart at. I don't know if I went into this thing thinking, "I'm going to win it," but I've always been competitive so it was like, "Let's see if I can be really good at this."

Then the fact we could go to nationals, which meant a trip to DC for a week. That was like, "Great, I'll get out of school for a week."

Preparing for the National Bee

Scott Isaacs: I was that kid who, if I would go over to a friend's house to play, and if there was a dictionary in the house, I would find my way over to the dictionary and just read it.

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon: I won the Colorado Bee on clinquant, but I've forgotten what it means.

Nupur Lala: After I won the first bee, they handed me a study guide and I don't think they expected anything. But I actually studied. I made it to the 1998 National Spelling Bee. I had no idea it would go that far that fast.

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon: To prepare for the orals you have to spell out loud. It's a different skill than writing down words. It helps to have somebody calling out words.

I had a sister and we would go skiing and be on the ski bus drilling each other on words. My mom ended up being a really big helper drilling us, for hours and hours and hours.

The bee was in June, and I think the Colorado bee was in late March or April. It was hours a day after that point. I remember missing my eighth grade trip because I had too much studying to do. It was going to be to New Mexico, since we weren't a fancy school.

Barrie Trinkle: It was so old-school when I was going [in 1973], you found whatever books and lists you could dig up. If you knew somebody who had been at a previous spelling bee, or if someone had a book of weird words, you'd use that. Eventually, because I was serious, we were driven to using the dictionary.

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon: When the nun who had been our principal left to become principal of another school, I would take the bus across town to study with her. She was really good with language derivation. It was also pre-internet [in 1979]. And she had lists of the old words used in previous bees, which they didn't post and was actually really valuable.

Dan Greenblatt: I certainly studied. I had this book called Words of the Champions that was all the words that they were supposedly going to use at nationals, and also a guideline for regionals.

In the spotlight

Barrie Trinkle: I went to the National Spelling Bee three times: in fifth grade, sixth grade, and seventh grade. The Spelling Bee was much smaller then than it is now. We were asked to spell words like pistachio and massacre. There were maybe 75 kids. I came in 28th in fifth grade.

Nupur Lala: I got out in the third round my first year. But I figured out, "Okay, this is how people study." I wanted to do well. So I started studying again the next year. My only goal in 1999 was to just make it past the first day.

Scott Isaacs: I was eliminated in the sixth round both in 1987 and 1988. All I wanted was to win in 1989. I had imagined myself receiving the last word and nailing the word and then hoisting the trophy up in the air. Honestly, I think I won 50 times in my head before I did.

Katie_kerwin_wins_spelling_bee_1979

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon, the 1979 champion (courtesy of Katie Kerwin McCrimmon)

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon: It was really exciting. I'd barely flown on an airplane before, so just getting to DC was exciting. As you know the event is totally over-covered because it's sponsored by newspapers. So we each came with our own media representative. And there were DC reporters too, and a lot of TV cameras.

Nupur Lala: They had a barbecue on Monday and then we'd all go to DC together, then have two days of spelling, and then two middle school type dances. It was a really geeky crew. It was hilarious.

Dan Greenblatt: We were all a little nerdy. We had all won a state or regional bee, and a lot of that stemmed from the fact we were a bit weird and had this freak talent we could all relate to.

Nupur Lala: I did well enough to get on the part that ESPN televises. I think at that point my mindset flipped. I didn't care, in the sense that I had exceeded my goal. I would just take it word by word and I would be happy wherever I placed.

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon: It was very exciting. It was a little daunting — it was such a big event. There was no written competition. It was all of us up on that giant stage.

Each round, I had this charm bracelet and I was clinking it, saying a little prayer like, "Let me get a word I've seen before." It's luck of the draw. It's so much about: do I get a word I've seen?

Dan Greenblatt: I can remember this particular moment. We were all doing well. There were like 150 of us, and only 20 had been eliminated. And they had been going off the words from Words of Champions but it's pretty small, like 100 pages at most. We didn't realize they were just going to switch to the dictionary.

They did that, and the first word came out and it was like, "Where did that come from!" Half of us got eliminated that round. It was a bloodbath in the crying room.

Nupur Lala: In the 10th round there were three spellers. I had to guess on one word. I just had never seen it before and the information was not adequate to help me.

The word was poimenics. I got all the information and I was like, "I don't know what do here." I was like, "Okay, I have a hunch I'll go on." It was later when I saw Spellbound I saw that my mom was really really nervous. It was the only time I saw her nervous during the bee.

The winning word

Dan Greenblatt: With the final two, you don't get to sit down. You take turns at the mic. It was me and this other girl from Michigan. We were the only two left. It's a lot of tension standing there. You just have to do the best you can, and hope you do well.

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon: I didn't know either of the final two words.

The other girl left misspelled one, which was virescence. Her guess made sense, since the definition had something to do with greening, so "ver" as the start makes a lot of sense. I would have made the same mistake. She guessed wrong and then I guessed the only other way it could be spelled.

Nupur Lala: When I was waiting for them to say the winning word, I could see the trophy being handed to the CEO of Scripps. And it was like, "This is real." It felt like a dream. I still think it's the most surreal moment of my life.

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon: My last word is really a useless one. Some of the last words become famous but mine was maculature. I think it's an engraving in recessed areas.

It seemed eerily simple. There weren't too many ways to mess it up. I found out it was Latin and with Latin words you keep it simple, don't get carried away.

Nupur Lala: It was a very easy, logorrhea. It's something that several spellers would have studied along the way, so for me, receiving logorrhea it was like, "I've studied this so many times." It was great. To calm myself down and sort of savor the moment a little bit, I did ask for the definition in a sentence.


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Nupur Lala, the 1999 champion (Mario Tama, Getty Images)


Barrie Trinkle: I knew the word [vouchsafe] when I saw it. I don't think I asked any questions. I think I just went ahead and spelled it.

Scott Isaacs: I remember finishing my word and I saw the head judge turn to the head of Scripps Howard who had the trophy. I saw her turn to him and pat him on the shoulder. And I felt like that was all I needed to see to know I'd won.

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon: After I spelled it, I saw one of the judges, I saw her nod, and I just went crazy. I went crazy and I spun around and was really emotional. I didn't know I'd had it in the bag, and it was incredible. I had pictured this moment when I was a kid.

Nupur Lala: I jumped up and down on stage, and most of that was me wanting to feel like it was real. It did not feel real at all.

Dan Greenblatt: I think I had the easiest word on earth, luge. I seem to remember thinking, "That can't be it. It's got to be a trick." So I asked for the definition. I wanted to know this is really what you want me to spell. It was pretty weird.

Barrie Trinkle: There were all these flashbulbs going off. It was very neat for a 13-year-old.

15 minutes (or more) of fame

Dan Greenblatt: Afterwards was really weird, and shaped me a lot. I had this crush of fame all of a sudden. Every news station in DC wanted to talk to me. Even that night, I remember they had to sequester me in a hotel room and then whisked me to New York. I did Charlie Rose that night and then the following morning I was on CBS.

Nupur Lala: They have a dance for the kids after the Spelling Bee. You'd get a few hours to recover, and then there was a dance. I remember going downstairs for the dance and the bee director pulls me aside and says, "You need to go to sleep early because you're going to be up early and be interviewed."

They got you up at like 4:30 am and told you what to wear. It used to be a bee polo, but now I think it's whatever the kid wants. And you're shuttled around like a celebrity. They had a limo out front for the 1999 Spelling Bee champion, which is to a middle-schooler the most epic thing ever.

Dan Greenblatt: I got to go on Johnny Carson. Heck with the rest of the whole thing, I got to meet Johnny Carson! Merv Griffin then heard I was out there, and wanted to have me on and it was like, "This is really cool."

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon: A few days later I was supposed to go to New York to do the Today Show and then John Wayne died. So I got bumped by John Wayne, which was obviously a bigger story. So I didn't get to do the Today Show.

What it's like to be a Spelling Bee champ

Dan Greenblatt: I think the whole experience shaped me. A lot of people seek out fame, but when it's thrust upon you, it kind of changes your life. I'm glad I experienced that at a young age. I still certainly enjoy being on radio and TV. It's more on my terms now. I've done voice acting. You couldn't pick me out walking down the street. So I don't really seek out the spotlight.

Barrie Trinkle: It's been interesting. I became an aerospace engineer for awhile but then I did go back to words, becoming an editor and writer, and that's been my life for the past 15 years. It's almost like I tried to get away from words, and they pulled me back.

Nupur Lala: For several years, I watched it every year. After college, you go through this weirdly rebellious phase where I wanted to disassociate and carve out an identity aside from the Spelling Bee. For a few years, I played it cool and didn't watch. Last year I missed it because I had tickets to see Aziz Ansari. But on the whole I have watched it most times.

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon: My first thought when they started broadcasting the bee was, "Why would anybody care?" The first year, it was on CNN and then ESPN wanted to broadcast it and there was a bit of a bidding war. ESPN seemed like such a mismatch to me but they always said that, when it went on in sports bars, people would just eat it up. Then there was the idea of color commentary, which I was involved in for a little while.

There's actually a surprising amount to comment on. You're seeing the hints in the words. People don't get how you could ever do this if you didn't memorize the dictionary. Have you seen the dictionary? It's impossible to memorize. I actually see the one my mom gave me on my desk right now. It's five or six inches thick — there's no way to memorize all those words. So you're explaining the things the kids might be thinking.

Dan Greenblatt: My close friends know. Usually it's my girlfriend telling people more than I do. I don't ever talk about it really, because it's the same 25 questions: how'd you win, how'd you do that? I can tell this story over and over again, but let's talk about something more interesting.

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon: I didn't get embarrassed about it until after the fact, then it was like everybody knew! That still happens, since I still live in Denver. I will be in the most random places and people will recognize my name and be like, "You're the speller." It's the 15 minutes of fame that have stretched out forever.

Nupur Lala: The last few years I've watched with friends, and they're completely sucked in. And I guess it's nice to see the skinny kids with glasses being treated like rock stars. It's hilarious. Every year I'm like, "Oh my gosh, that one is so cute and nerdy." It's a very strange celebration of the underdog. It's like these bizarre kids who maybe don't get noticed as much.


The champions

Nupur Lala, 29, won the 1999 National Spelling Bee with the word logorrhea. She was 14 years old and it was her second time in the national competition. Lala was also one of the stars of Spellbound, a 2002 documentary following eight competitors at the 1999 bee. After working in a cognitive neuroscience lab at MIT, she is currently beginning medical school at the University of Arkansas.

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon, 48, won the 1979 National Spelling Bee with the word maculature, a word she didn't know — and had to guess. She subsequently has worked for ESPN as a color commentator on their annual broadcast, and is now a health care reporter in Denver, where she grew up. She sometimes still gets recognized as "the speller kid."

Scott Isaacs, 39, won the 1989 National Spelling Bee with the word spoliator. It was his third time competing on at the bee; in both 1987 and 1988, he was eliminated in the sixth round. He is now a chiropractor in Denver, and also a spelling bee coach.

Barrie Trinkle, 54, won the 1973 National Spelling Bee with the word vouchsafe. After working for a decade as an aerospace engineer, she transitioned into editing and writing. She is the author of How to Spell Like a Champ and a consultant to the Spelling Bee. She will be in Washington for this year's competition.

Dan Greenblatt, 43, won the 1984 National Spelling Bee with the word luge, which he still considers a much too easy word. He is a software engineer in San Francisco who also does work as a voice actor.

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