The glass-sided elevator moved downwards as I tried to stuff some peanut butter toast, a last-second breakfast, into my mouth.
The glass-sided elevator moved downwards as I tried to stuff some peanut butter toast, a last-second breakfast, into my mouth. Despite my eating of food, I wasn't hungry. I was too nervous to be hungry. Today was Tuesday, May 26, the first day of competition in the 2015 Scripps National Spelling Bee, and I was on my way down to the Maryland Ballroom in our hotel, where the Preliminaries Test would soon begin. After a short assembly of the spellers where Bee officials explained competition logistics to us, it was time to begin. I sat in my assigned seat in the second row of tables, where a piece of paper with my picture and "Speller 29: Sylvie Lamontagne" marked my spot. The test envelopes were handed out, and I eagerly opened mine as soon as it was allowed.
The test started off easily, with the word "rhythmically." After that, however, the test was no longer easy. The remaining spelling words included "gorgoneion," "perruche," and "tarsorrhaphy." Then it was time for the vocabulary section. This section asked me and the other spellers to define words such as "expatiate," "hypercryalgesia," "otiose," and "viridigenous." There were two more vocabulary words that were each worth three points (instead of one, like the others): "desuetude" and "symbiosis." Then the test was over, and I left. I was confident that I had done well, but affirmation of that would have to wait until tomorrow afternoon. There were no more competition segments for the day, so I took a break for lunch before I studied with my dad for most of the rest of the day.
Wednesday brought Rounds Two and Three (the Preliminaries Test was Round One), the two preliminary oral rounds. Although the test was composed of "out-of-the-book" words, these two rounds pulled words from Spell It! and the 2015 Round Three Study Guide. Despite the fact that I had committed both of these lists to memory, I was incredibly anxious. When it was my turn to spell, my legs were shaking. Dr. Bailly, the pronouncer, read my Round Two word aloud. "Topeng." Good. I knew this word. After asking all the questions I could to ensure correctness, I uttered six simple letters: T-O-P-E-N-G. I breathed a sigh of relief as I walked back to my seat. The next round, Round Three, brought the same situation. I was terrified, but I received and correctly spelled the word "eutrophic." It was then time for the announcement of semifinalists.
Before the announcements began, I received confirmation of my final Preliminaries score: 34 out of 36 possible points. I was called back to the stage, and the list of semifinalists was read. At long last, I heard my own name: "Speller number 29, from Lakewood, Colorado, Sylvie Lamontagne!" I smiled as I walked forward to receive a medal. I had made it to the top forty-nine out of the 285 spellers at this spelling bee, out of 11 million students that start competing at the classroom level worldwide. Once all semifinalists had been announced, it was time to go. There was another test to be taken. In the hallway outside of the room where the Semifinals Test would soon take place, there was some food laid out for us. I ate one strawberry (I was feeling too sick from anxiety) as I was talking with the other spellers. We were soon ushered into the testing room.
If the Preliminaries Test was difficult, the Semifinals Test was nearly impossible. Spelling words included "karakurt," "elepaio," and the sesquipedalian (and German) "Walpurgisnacht." The vocabulary section contained the likes of "epithalamium," "mansard," and "eburneous." The three-point vocabulary words on this test were "collusion" and "dysphemia." All in all, the Semifinals Test left me devastated. I felt certain that I had done terribly. However, scores and rankings in relation to the other spellers' scores were yet to be released. Later that night, I received my test results. I had lost nine points on that day's test. If I spelled my two Semifinals words correctly in the morning, my final score (added to my Preliminaries score) would be 61 out of 72 possible points. Even later that night, rankings were released. I was tied for the twelfth best score. I was given new hope. If I spelled my two words correctly, and just one person with a better score than me missed their word, I would be a Championship Finalist.
The morning dawned, and the Semifinals began. Everything from here on out was entirely out-of-the-book. Before I approached the microphone, ESPN showed a mini-bio about me that had been filmed earlier that week. It was somewhat funny, so it helped to ease the tension as I stepped up to hear my word. What if I get a word I've never heard of? I thought. What if I spell it so incorrectly that I embarrass myself in front of all these people? My thoughts were pulsing at lightning speed when Dr. Bailly finally opened his mouth.
I had never seen this word, but I had a hunch as to how to spell it. I asked all my questions, and scratched it out on my placard with my fingernail. Okay. It was time to spell. "Monepic," I said. "M-O-N-E-P-I-C. Monepic."
"Correct," a judge intoned. I returned to my seat to await my Round Six word. It ended up being "Hanswurst," another word which I had never seen but spelled correctly nevertheless. It was now halfway through Round Six, and I had spelled my two words correctly, but someone ranked above me had yet to misspell. I convinced myself that there was no way that one of the remaining superior spellers would miss. Snehaa Ganesh Kumar, who was sitting next to me, had the exact same score and was awaiting the same thing as me. She had convinced herself of the same thing that I just had. However, the next three people who were ranked ahead of us missed their word. I felt awkward about having to hope that someone missed their word, but that hope was over. It had happened. I was in the finals. I had to let that sink in for a second. Then the fact reiterated itself in my mind.
I AM IN THE FINALS! I thought as I exchanged excitement-suppressing glances with Snehaa, who had just had the same realization. As I expected, when the round concluded and the announcements began, my name was read, proclaiming me a Championship Finalist. There were ten of us. Ten left out of eleven million across the world. That meant that the chances of getting to this spot were LESS THAN ONE IN A MILLION. That afternoon was jam-packed. I went from interviews to hair and make-up to dinner to more interviews. Ten minutes before spelling began, parents were kicked out of the dinner room and we spellers were brought backstage. It was a dream come true. Qualifying for the National Spelling Bee finals had always seemed like a fantasy that only happened on TV. And now I was here. This was the moment.
We walked onstage and donned our placards that had our names printed on them. The first speller received "bouillabaisse." I knew that word well; in fact, I could spell it in my sleep. That gave me a boost of confidence that I, too, would get an easy word. Then I went to the microphone. After saying hello, Dr. Bailly said my word: "suh-RAS-teez." (Note: the pronunciation of the word, not the spelling, has been written here.) What? But I knew the first word so well! Why this word that I've never heard of or seen? Why now? Why me? I thought. But I had to calm down, tell myself that maybe I could figure it out. So I did. I took a deep breath.
"Suh-RAS-teez?" I asked. Dr. Bailly nodded. "Can I have the language of origin, please?"
"Latin from Greek."
"Suh-RAS-teez. Can I . . . are there any alternate pronunciations?"
"Just the one: suh-RAS-teez."
So it went, me asking every question I could think of (definition, part of speech, sentence usage) and getting answers. The stage turned red. I had thirty seconds, and I couldn't ask any more questions. "Alright," I sighed. "Suh-RAS-teez. S-O-R-A-S-T-E-S. Suh-RAS-teez." In that split second between the speller's finishing of the spelling and the bell, so many things run through the speller's mind. My case was no exception. Hope. Despair. Sadness. Just about every other emotion the planet. Then it came.
DING. I cringed. "Cerastes is spelled C-E-R-A-S-T-E-S."
"Thank you," I said before leaving the stage. Another speller missed her word in that round, so I ended up tying for ninth place. Gokul Venkatachalam and Vanya Shivashankar were co-champions that night, a record-breaking second consecutive time where the Bee had two winners. The next day, I went on a tour of Washington, DC, and I attended an awards banquet which was followed by a party. After that, Bee Week, as it is called, was over.
I came away with $1,500 and two medals for my ninth place finish that week, but more importantly, I came away with several new friends and a ton of new memories. I'm no longer eligible to compete (unless I move or Colorado's one-time-at-nationals rule changes), but that's not what really matters. What really matters is how much I've learned throughout this whole journey–not just about words, but about a myriad of other things as well.