OXON HILL, Md. – Madeline McCoy of West Falls met her saboteur in the Scripps National Spelling Bee on Wednesday, but it was not the word “saboteur.”
It was the written spelling and vocabulary test that the spellers took the day before.
Madeline, the Buffalo News’ representative in the Bee, spelled “saboteur” without a hitch in the Bee’s second round.
Then she breezed through “Ibsenian” – that is, pertaining to the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen – in the third round.
But only afterward did she learn that her performance in the first-round written exam, while no Ibesenian tragedy, was not enough to win her a place in this afternoon’s semifinals.
Madeline scored a 22 on the 36-word written test – which required a score of 31 to qualify spellers for the semifinals.
“I was kind of apprehensive that it would be pretty difficult,” said Madeline, a home-schooled 13-year-old seventh-grader. “Some parts of it were difficult, but some parts of it were pretty easy.”
Standing on stage, though, Madeline performed like a pro.
Hearing her second-round word, “I was just kind of happy that I knew it,” she said.
Ditto for Ibsenian – even though Madeline acknowledged afterward she didn’t know what the word meant.
Who knows how many of the spellers know what the word “Byzantine” means, but if you were to use it in a sentence, you could say: “The Scripps National Spelling Bee introduced a set of Byzantine new rules this year.”
For one thing, the 281 spellers who entered the competition had to endure the Bee’s first vocabulary component. Madeline struggled a bit with that, too: saying that “prevaricate” meant to change plans, which newspapers sometimes do, rather than its real meaning, which is to deviate from the truth, which this newspaper in particular never does.
The vocabulary test and the written spelling test were combined into some sort of secret formula with the words the kids spelled on the stage. The results magically winnowed the field from the 239 who survived round three to a mere 41 who will meet for today’s semifinals.
The top performers will then go on to tonight’s finals, which will be televised on ESPN.
Madeline, the daughter of Tom and Roxanne McCoy, said she studied words for about 90 minutes a day in what was really a family affair.
Her sister and brother had taken part in past Buffalo News spelling bees and helped her with her nightly studies, and this year was Madeline’s second in the local contest.
“It’s just one of the things we do as a family,” Roxanne McCoy said.
While some spellers stalked sadly from the stage after missing a word, and one young boy from New Jersey wailed and shrieked and sobbed while other, better spellers continued in his wake, Madeline took her performance in stride.
Asked if she would strive to return to the national contest next year, Madeline said with a smile: “We’ll try.”