What Is It Like to Win the Scripps National Spelling Bee? A Former Champ Weighs In.

Arvind Mahankali of Bayside Hills, N.Y., holds his trophy after winning the 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

This question originally appeared on Quora.

Answer by Jon Pennington, National Spelling Bee champion, 1986:

My info to you will be a little out of date, but 26 years ago, I won the 1986 National Spelling Bee by spelling the word odontalgia, a fancy word for a toothache. (Kaolinic, the word I had to spell before that, was actually the more difficult feat to pull off.) Anyhow, I can give you some description of my experience.

My local paper was the Harrisburg Patriot-News, and they sponsored the local spelling bee that qualified me to take part in the national competition. Competition was actually pretty intense in my local area and, when I was in seventh grade, I came in 3rd place locally after misspelling the word nasaump by adding an unnecessary extra letter U. (In case you were wondering, which you probably aren’t, nasaump is a form of corn porridge that was originally popular among Native Americans in New England.) The winner for the Patriot-News that year was a guy from Gettysburg named Charles Lewis, who eventually came in fifth place at the National Spelling Bee in 1985. In addition, in 1979, my newspaper sponsored Julie Won, who came in second place at the National Spelling Bee.

Being the junior high school dork I was, I absolutely idolized Julie Won and Charles Lewis. So, for the next year, I really stepped up my spelling game and studied extremely hard, but mostly with an eye to winning the local Patriot-News spelling bee, without really thinking about the national competition. (I even started imitating the way Charles Lewis pronounced his letters very slowly, hoping that would give me an edge.) The previous year, I was one of 10 spelling finalists competing on a local TV broadcast, which ran over time considerably, because Charles Lewis was engaged in a spelling duel with the second-place finisher that lasted at least a half hour longer than the TV producers expected. When they broadcast the spelling bee the following year, I came loaded for bear, because the competition was so stiff the year before, but that year, my competitors disqualified out of the bee much more quickly, leaving the TV station with a lot of dead air (the opposite problem from what happened the year before). They tried to get me to chitchat on the air, but I mainly wanted to take my trophy and start practicing for the national bee.

After I won locally, they introduced me to a wonderful woman named Mary Runkle, who would be my chaperone for the National Spelling Bee the following May. The chaperones are usually employees of the sponsoring newspaper, and Mary Runkle had chaperoned a lot of kids over the years. As one of the better prepared chaperones, she gave me lots of extra word lists (collected from previous years of the spelling bee and other regional bees) that I had not previously had access to.

I don’t exactly remember all of what transpired in the months before I went to the bee, but I kept my expectations reasonable and hoped to attain a position in the top 50 spellers nationally. I was competing against many spellers who had been to the National Spelling Bee up to three or four times, but I was going for my first time.

When I participated in the bee in 1986, the first round actually had the spellers spell words that they had been given ahead of time, mostly so that they could do sound checks for all the microphones. In addition, it was important for the microphone to be adjustable enough to accommodate children of different heights, in a competition where the contestants can range from fourth graders who are barely 4 feet tall to eighth grade boys going through their first growth spurts.

I believe the second and third rounds had words that came from a list that was sent to all the spellers before, but you didn’t know what word you were going to get. This thinned out the herd a little bit and led to some spellers who hadn’t studied the list getting disqualified, but it was a good warm-up for those who remained. If I recall correctly, my words in these rounds were tubular and syncytium.

After the third round, all bets are off, and they can throw any word in the dictionary at you, as long as the dictionary is Merriam-Webster’s Third New International. They don’t start throwing out the hardest words first, because that might lead to chaotic results, but instead they tend to ratchet up the difficulty of the words gradually so that the rate of attrition stays manageable.

Personally speaking, I didn’t even think I was even close to winning until it turned out that I was going to survive past lunchtime on the last day of the bee. During lunch, I did some last-minute cramming, but the cramming didn’t necessarily accomplish much except give me a sense of security.

After that, I kept spelling and surviving as much as I could, until I ended up as one of the last two spellers in the bee. The rules have changed since then, but back in 1986, the national spelling bee would continue on a “miss and out” basis until two spellers remained. Once only two spellers were left, the rules changed slightly. At that point, the bee would continue as normal until one speller misspelled a word. After the speller misspelled, the other speller would be given the opportunity to correct the previous speller’s misspelling. If the other speller spelled the misspelled word correctly, that speller would be given the next word on the list. If they spelled that word correctly, they would then be declared champion. If the other speller failed to correct the misspelling, the bee would go back to to square one again. On the other hand, if the other speller misspelled the next word on the list, the first speller had a chance to correct that word, thereby giving the first speller a chance to win the bee. Either way, you had to spell at least two words correctly in a row.

Needless to say, this makes for very nerve-wracking competition. My memory of it was that the lights in the auditorium where we competed were blindingly bright. When you add up all the press photographers in there, who come from everywhere from Alabama to Japan, that makes it even brighter with all the flash cubes. I actually borrowed my mother’s sunglasses so I could deal with all the bright lights. If you look at vintage news photos of me winning the spelling bee, I am actually still wearing my mother’s 1980-style sunglasses.

Another thing non-contestants might not realize is that it takes a lot of poise, grace under pressure, and even physical stamina to compete in the National Spelling Bee. When you’re a kid of junior high school age, it is a two-day competition that takes many, many hours that can be physically draining as much as it is mentally draining. For example, you can’t go to the bathroom or get a drink of water during a round of the spelling bee, but can only tend to your needs between rounds.

On the other hand, I won the National Spelling Bee the first time I competed nationally, so I cannot speak to what it’s like to lose at the national level, because all of my previous losses were at the local level. I’ve never seen it, but I can attest that there is a “cry room” at the National Spelling Bee where staffers are there to comfort spellers who have disqualified from the bee and provide them with refreshments or Kleenex if necessary.

However, a fellow contestant of mine from 1986, Kat Kinsman, is currently the main food blogger for CNN. Kat has written a wonderful account of her experiences at the 1986 National Spelling Bee, and I highly encourage people to read it.

The gist of the article is that Kat may not have won, but she met a lifelong friend while she was there. After I won the bee, I was shuttled around a lot, where I ended up making appearances on Good Morning America and with President Reagan in the Rose Garden at the White House. So unfortunately, I missed out on some of the fun socializing at the bee that Kat got to participate in. So if I had to do it all over again, I would still hope to win the bee, but I would have loved to have competed in the bee the year before and lose just so that I could have socialized a lot more with my fellow junior high school dorks.

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