RALEIGH — In the end, it was the easier words that tripped up some of the top spellers vying Saturday to represent Wake County in the Scripps National Spelling Bee for the first time since 1997.
Saturday's Wake County Spelling Bee turned into a marathon that lasted more than 4 1/2 hours and 23 rounds. Students aced words such as "croesus," "bobbejaan," "hartebeest" and "balalaika." Near the end, judges had to switch to new words after they exhausted the words that students had memorized.
While some of the new words such as "candor," "uppityness" and "presage" were easier, they tripped up some of the fatigued and hungry finalists. The bee, which started about 9:20 a.m., didn't end until after 2 p.m.
Catherine Wagner, 13, an eighth-grader at St. Michael School, a Catholic school in Cary, outlasted the field of 78 spellers when she correctly spelled "talcum." By then, the Cary teenager was hungry, had a head that was aching and a foot that had fallen asleep.
"I was just hoping it was going to end," said Wagner, who had earlier gotten harder words such as "fete," "menhaden" and "tokamak."
Wagner's opportunity came after Abijah Samuel, 11, a sixth-grader at East Cary Middle School, missed "constituent."
"I could have done better," said Samuel, of Morrisville, who finished second. "I could have gotten that word, but it's all right."
Michelle Dai, 10, a fourth-grader at Dillard Drive Elementary School in Raleigh, finished third.
Wagner will have three months to gear up for her all-expenses-paid trip to Washington in June for the national competition.
"If I study, I should do well," said Wagner, who is looking forward to the possibility of competing on national television. "If not, I won't make it out of the first round."
The Spelling Bee has become a cultural phenomenon in recent years. ESPN broadcasts the semifinals, and ABC airs the finals in prime time. But Wake County students were shut out of the event for more than a decade when The News & Observer and television station WRAZ withdrew sponsorship after 1997.
But PAGE of Wake County (Partnership for the Advancement of Gifted Education) stepped up to be the main sponsor for the regional competition. Co-sponsors include The N&O, the Carolina Hurricanes and N.C. State University.
Interest was high after hiatus
Lily Phillips, who coordinated the spelling bee for PAGE of Wake County, said the group plans to sponsor next year's Wake Spelling Bee as well. She said the group was impressed by the level of interest this year, with the spellers mainly coming from elementary and middle schools in the Wake County school system, with some from private schools and home schools.
On Saturday, family and friends of the contestants, along with people simply interested in seeing a spelling bee, packed the auditorium of Witherspoon Student Center at N.C. State.
Shubha Sachdev anxiously watched her 7-year-old son, Rohan, make it into the final 17 spellers. Rohan, a second-grader at Laurel Park Elementary School in Cary, was the youngest competitor.
"He likes to spell all the time," Sachdev said. "He's worked so hard. He did great."
The pressure got to some of the competitors.
William Roberts, 9, a fourth-grader at Forestville Road Elementary School in Knightdale, got sick after successfully spelling his first-round word "bungalow." He was knocked out in the second round.
"I'm happy with what I did," said William, who like the other competitors won his school bee to make it to the county final. "I think I'll take a break next year."
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