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For The First Time Since World War II, National Spelling Bee Is Canceled


The annual Scripps National Spelling Bee is like a junior Olympics for wordsmiths. The contest was canceled this year because of the coronavirus. We spoke with two students who had planned to compete.

COLETTE GIEZENTANNER: My name is Colette Giezentanner. I am 13 years old. I am in seventh grade - wait. I guess I'm in eighth grade. That's weird to think about (laughter).

VAYUN KRISHNA: My name is Vayun Krishna. I live in Sunnyvale in California in the Bay Area. I am 13 years old. And I'm going from seventh to eighth grade.

MARTIN: I asked them both how it felt to have to miss the big event.

COLETTE: It took a while to accept, but I know it's what they had to do.

VAYUN: Obviously, I was pretty disappointed because I've been preparing for it the whole year. But in terms of public health, it was the right decision.

MARTIN: Well, it's not like you just show up at these contests. It really is a community, isn't it? Have you made a lot of friends?

VAYUN: Yeah. In fact, I have because you're not really competing against the spellers themselves. You're competing against a dictionary. I mean, you can't do anything to lower the other person's chances of winning. The only thing you can control is what you do. So you beat a lot of people who have the same passion as you, which is a passion for words and language. It's pretty easy to make friends with them.

MARTIN: You guys, how do you prepare for these? You can't memorize the dictionary.

COLETTE: I do mostly online study. I used to do flash cards, and my dad would actually make flash cards during his breaks when he was working as a mail carrier.

VAYUN: So there's no real way to memorize the dictionary. It's more about, like, roots, so you - it's more about connecting the word to the pattern and the rules than actual memorization. And reading books is a great way to study for vocab as well.

MARTIN: Do you guys have any special rituals that you do on the morning of competition?

VAYUN: Well, I always eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I...

MARTIN: Come on. You do?

VAYUN: Yeah. I do.

MARTIN: (Laughter) Colette?

COLETTE: I wear mismatched socks.

MARTIN: (Laughter) OK. Guys, you knew it was coming. And I'm sure you have a lot of favorite words, but what's one on your mind? Or just what's your go-to? Like, how this word feels on my mouth when I spell it. Do you have one of those?

VAYUN: Llullaillaco - it is a Peruvian stratovolcano. And if you hear it, the spelling looks nothing like what it sounds like. But...

MARTIN: Wait. Say it again, Vayun.

VAYUN: Llullaillaco.

MARTIN: Llullaillaco.

VAYUN: Yes. So - but if you use Spanish patterns, it's actually a lot easier. So the way it's spelled is L-L-U-L-L-A-I-L-L-A-C-O - Llullaillaco.

MARTIN: Well, of course, it's spelled that way, seems fairly obvious (laughter). Colette.

COLETTE: Splacknuck - S-P-L-A-C-K-N-U-C-K - which is a word about a fictional animal.

MARTIN: Brilliant. I declare both of you the winners. Vayun Krishna, a seventh-grader from Sunnyvale, Calif., and Collette Giezantanner, also a seventh-grader from St. Louis, Mo., you guys, thank you so much for talking with us. And we'll be looking out for you in future Scripps Spelling Bees. OK. And good luck with everything.

COLETTE: Thank you for having me.

VAYUN: Thank you for taking your time to talk to me.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: This report incorrectly calls Llullaillaco a Peruvian stratovolcano. In fact, it is located on the border between Argentina and Chile.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lisa Weiner
Lisa Weiner is a line producer on Morning Edition. For NPR, she's covered the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and traveled to Ukraine to cover the Russian invasion in 2022. Prior to joining NPR, she held positions as an editor at WTOP-FM, as an engineer at Radio Free Asia and recorded audio books for the Library of Congress. Weiner has a master's degree in audio technology from American University. She got her start in radio working the late-night shift as a student DJ in the basement of WRUR-FM at the University of Rochester. Weiner has lived in Tel Aviv, Israel, and Budapest, Hungary.