* 1 The Pressure David Tidmarsh is breathing like a runaway pony. And no wonder: The slender fourteen-year-old stands onstage facing six judges and a crowded ballroom, with all eyes on him. In the front row sits an Associated Press reporter, dispatching updates to newspapers across the country. Near the stage huddles an ESPN television crew, beaming David's visage to thousands of viewers. The roving cameraman moves to catch his every grimace; another camera, a crane-operated affair swooping toward the stage, resembles a high- tech dinosaur that might devour David's 110-£d frame as an afternoon snack. A few feet away, also on the red-carpeted stage, sits his mother; the tape later reveals she has a tear suspended at the edge of her right eye, waiting for her son's next word. David faces gaminerie, a French word meaning an impudent or roguish spirit. His face, as wide open as the farmland around his hometown of South Bend, Indiana, jogs quickly through a crowd of emotions: fear, hope, pure anxiety, even a short smile. He's a self-effacing kid, the kind of boy who, when you express amazement at how hard he's studied, replies, "Yeah, I guess so." He steps closer to the microphone and we hear his hyperventilating breath. A few audience members even chuckle lightly--his deep breathing right into the microphone sounds something like Darth Vader's demonic respiration--but the mood in the room is far too close for real laughter. He asks the official pronouncer, Jacques Bailly, the questions allowed each speller--definition, sample sentence, language of origin--and as he does, his already rapid respiration starts to sprint away from him. By the time he asks about the language of origin, his voice is reduced to a whisper. He's out of breath. He struggles to recover, and uses his knowledge of etymology to dig for clues. "Is it related to the, um, English word gamin meaning an impudent child?" Bailly demurs at the query, noting the rule against answering questions about relations between English words. "Okay, that's fine," David says pleasantly, and then the hyperventilating starts galloping again. He bites his lip and pauses. Finally, with effort, he gathers his breath. He's ready to spell. So here it is, in the cavernous ballroom of the Grand Hyatt in downtown Washington, DC: the homestretch of the 2004 Scripps National Spelling Bee. Soon, one of the few remaining spellers will be dubbed the champion, the photographers will move in for the glory shot, and a new name will be entered in the record books. Just offstage gleams the trophy, a florid gold loving cup about two feet high. Along with the cup comes a bounty of spoils: some $20,000 in cash prizes, encyclopedias, and assorted gewgaws. The winner typically meets the president, is interviewed by Diane Sawyer (and myriad others), appears on David Letterman, and is lauded by The New York Times as one of the nation's bright young minds. Wendy Guey, the 1996 champion and now a Harvard undergrad, will direct a special round of applause to the winner when she speaks at this year's Bee awards banquet. Now, in the third day of competition, the original 265 spellers have been whittled down to the last hardy survivors. All of the kids came here with dreams, all having battled their way up from a starting pool of some ten million spellers. To earn a spot at Nationals, they all had to win some combination of school, city, and regional bees, competing against ever better spellers at each stage. So all of them are smart and hardworking and lucky--and luck plays a determining role at Nationals, as any Bee veteran will attest. If not for chance, many of the 265 might have survived to these final rounds. Yet chance favors a prepared mind, and in that regard those who make it to these final rounds go several steps beyond. As a foundation, they have what's possessed by all top orthographers (an orthographer is a speller-- the kind who doesn't deign to use spell-check): Each has a working knowledge of the world's major languages, a deep understanding of roots and etymology--which equates to a sprawling vocabulary--and an intuitive grasp of that unpredictable beast known as the English language. Inarguably, they are word geeks, true language nuts. If the word eccentric could be used as an honorific, then, truth be told, they are all a dash eccentric. Moreover, each has something extra that sets them apart. For Katharine "Kerry" Close, for example, making it to the homestretch is a sign of her competitive spirit. All summer long she sails competitively, her blonde hair blowing in the breeze as she mans a one-person sailboat in races off the New Jersey shore. She spells like she sails--to win. She is, improbably, an eleven-year-old who's in the final rounds of a contest dominated by thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds. Even more unlikely given her eleven years, this is her third year here. And last year--at age ten--she tied for sixteenth out of 263 spellers. Early in the competition I asked her how she was doing, and she responded only with a wordless, uneasy grimace. She is, by her parents' description, a tad on the shy side, and also clearly feeling the anxiety of the competition. But you don't see that onstage. While some spellers hem and haw, stalling for time while their brains search for that buried verbal nugget, Kerry is all business. She takes whatever clues the judges provide-- definition, origin, sample sentence--and goes to work. No fuss. She has used this focused intensity to fell such monsters as Bunraku, panmyelopathy, and warison. If Kerry Close is feeling the pressure, then Akshay Buddiga is just barely treading water. A thirteen-year-old whose coach-mother speaks nine languages, Akshay has studied daily for years alongside his brother, the 2002 champion. That his brother won the Bee creates a special incentive, or perhaps a special obstacle: If Akshay wins this year, it will be the first time in the Bee's seventy-seven-year history that siblings have won. And the Colorado boy might do it: In round after round he has spelled like Noah Webster's great-grandson. The stress, however, is taking its toll. Earlier in the competition, Akshay faced alopecoid, a Greek word meaning like a fox, vulpine. It wasn't his toughest challenge, but as he stood at the microphone, a large wave began washing over him, threatening to submerge him. He hadn't slept much the night before and had hardly eaten that day. Too nervous. Adding to the wooziness was that single fact, repeated so often throughout the competition: He and his brother might be the first sibling winners in the history of the Bee. That potential honor had loomed large since his brother's 2002 win, and Akshay had trained incessantly. Facing alopecoid, he stood just a few words away from this august achievement. But the water was rising ever higher. A round-faced boy with round glasses and short dark hair, he loves to hike the mountain trails near his house in Colorado Springs. Yet that cool mountain air was far from him now. As he stood facing the expectant audience, he seemed to retreat within himself. His voice had grown quieter in the later rounds. Finally, he began to speak in a slumberous, affectless monotone. Asking the definition and part of speech of alopecoid, his already sleepy voice fell to a mumble. He paused, shutting his eyes, as if on the verge of sleep. But just a moment later his soft brown eyes jolted open like he had glimpsed a terrifying sight. He staggered back a step, unsteady, and then . . . he fainted. The crowd gasped at his fall, a crumpling tumble that landed him flat on the stage. Dozens of adults abruptly stood, ready to rush to help. But before they could take more than a step, he was back on his feet and at the microphone, like a pugilist downed by an unseen punch who rises to fight on gamely. His eyes fluttered open. As numerous adults paused in mid-rescue, a stream of letters ushered forth from his mouth: a, l, o, p, e,--he sounded like a sleepwalker, could he spell correctly in his dazed state?--c, o, i, d. "That is correct," said head judge Mary Brooks, prompting a deep, sustained round of applause--and considerable amazement--from the crowded ballroom. Such is the mettle of the finalists here at the 2004 National Spelling Bee. Two days before, as the competition starts early Tuesday morning, things are not so tense. Throngs of parents and kids, reporters and camera crews, Bee officials and assorted language aficionados pour through the faux elegance of the Grand Hyatt, a massive 880-room affair about four blocks from the White House. Parents with cameras at the ready crowd down escalators, accompanying spellers and their siblings. Many of the kids fit in last-minute cramming with word lists, ignoring the Hyatt's profusion of gaudy aqua blue fountains and the unmanned piano that bangs out show tunes, jauntily if soullessly. The mood is an uneven mix of excitement and tension, as if we're going to a big party, but one that might be attended by the family dentist with drill in hand. If the idea of a spelling bee comes from Norman Rockwell's America, then the old master would have had to expand his palette considerably to capture these kids. Nicholas Truelson, from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, with blond hair and big owl glasses, shares the stage with Erik Zyman Carrasco from New York, New York, whose parents were born in Mexico. Mehron Price is proud of her Ethiopian heritage, Jamie Ding's mother often speaks to him in her native Chinese, and Samir Patel's Indian-born mother grew up in London before settling in Texas. The Bee is full of parents who still speak with their native accent, accompanying kids who have no trace of it, unless you count the soft drawl of Georgia or the bulldozed nasals of New Jersey. There's Marshall Winchester, from North Carolina, considered a top contender, who thanked the Lord for his spelling success, and there's Aqsa Ullah, from Florida, also favored to win, who has attended Muslim study sessions on the weekend. Anoopdeep Singh Bal, from Ohio, is a turban- wearing Sikh; in addition to being an ace speller of English he's also fluent in Punjabi, not to mention exceptionally well versed in basketball: He corrected the ESPN television crew about the spelling of a well-known coach's name. Dovie Eisner, from Florida, whose goal is to become an author, has won many awards for his knowledge of the Torah. The parents of Amber Owens, a star of the 2003 Bee, bought her a horse as a reward for making it to Nationals (she named her pony Alphabet). But many kids couldn't afford to be here if their family's trip wasn't sponsored by a regional newspaper or other sponsor. Shelby Brianne Smith, from Sacramento, California, wants to be a US Supreme Court Justice ("It's a cool job, getting people out of jail," she says). If she attains her goal, she'll be the first black female Justice. Mallory Irwinsy, who plays flute in her school band in Piedmont, Oklahoma, wants to be an Air Force pilot. The winner from 2002, Pratyush Buddiga, has a plan for making human life possible on Mars. The Bee, as a spelling coach from Texas tells me in a thick twang, "is as American as can be." As much as any single event, it gathers together the glorious panoply, first-generation Korean with Mayflower descendant, affluent and working class, Christian and Jew, little burg, big town, and suburb. The kids come from public school (183), parochial (20), private (27), and home-school (35). Bee organizers use the figure ten million when counting how many kids are involved; that figure includes all the school, city, and regional bees across the country. By some mysterious process, when those ten million were winnowed to these final 265 spellers, virtually every American group and class is represented. Juan Jose Mejia's father is a dairy worker in California. Joe Shepard's father is a cotton merchant in Georgia. Both of Maddy Kloss's parents are attorneys in Arizona. Both of Rajiv Tarigopula's parents are physicians in St. Louis. Chloe Bordewich's mother is a government official in upstate New York, and Adriana Ruf's mother is an accountant in Kentucky. Nektarios Vasilottos's father--the family speaks Greek around the house--manages a restaurant in LaPorte, Indiana. The father of Elicia Chamberlin (Elicia's so interested in circus arts that she trains on aerial fabric hung in the living room) is a social therapist in New Hampshire. Maithreyi Gopalakrishnan's mother is a technology specialist in Colorado. Morgan McGee's mom, a single mother, works as a cook-waitress. The father of Kay Sackinger, for whom debates and protests are a favorite activity, is a licensed massage therapist in Portland, Oregon. Trevor Leslie's father is a freelance musician in Indiana, Nora Porter's mother is a retail manager in Florida, and Cody Wendt's father drives a transit bus in Idaho. Erik Zyman Carrasco's father is a music professor at Juilliard; his mother is a biomedical scientist. Dakota Koll lives on a farm in Louisiana. Even the ages are somewhat mixed. To be eligible for the Bee, a speller must not have passed beyond the eighth grade. This means that thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds lead the competition, some returning for their third or fourth time. But plenty of talented eleven- and twelve-year-olds also compete, as do a handful of ten-year-olds. And each year there are a few trembling nine-year-olds, who typically appear quite knock-kneed at having made it to a contest with competitors five years their senior. Then again, in 2003 a nine-year-old took third place. There are few guarantees at the Bee. Gender, too, is equally matched--well, almost. Of the 79 champions before 2004, 42 are girls and 37 are boys. Of the spellers competing in this year's Bee, 135 are girls and 130 are boys. There's a great deal of talk at the Bee of how these kids are an elect bunch, an intellectual elite. As one of the fathers confides to me, with an unabashed heap of parental pride, "Well, there's nothing wrong with being average--but these kids aren't." And it's true--these kids are something of a tribe apart. How can a twelve-year-old who wants to study Latin and Greek word roots two hours a day be called typical? But while the Bee is a kind of yearly party of like-minded kids, with a certain geek chic that runs throughout, this gathering is the most diverse clique any thirteen-year-old is likely to join. The only things this glorious quilt of talented kids have in common are a commitment to scholarship, parents who care, and a facility with the English language. And, of course, the raw chutzpah to confront fearsome words in front of a large audience. Easier said than done. Excerpted from American Bee: The National Spelling Bee and the Culture of Word Nerds - The Lives of Five Top Spellers As They Compete for Glory and Fame by James Maguire All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.