"A Bloodbath in the Crying Room": Past Champs Recount the National Spelling Bee

Are you ready to feel dumb? Two boys, one 13 and one 14, have tied as winners of the National Spelling Bee because—wait for it—they spelled so many words correctly, the contest ran out of entries.

Ah, the Spelling Bee: that strange tradition in which hundreds of awkward middle-schoolers take over a hotel ballroom to spell some of the most obscure words of the English language. Doesn’t sound like a winning formula for prime time TV, does it? But in fact, in recent years more than 1 million people have tuned in to watch each annual match. And on ESPN no less.

Yes, for a couple hours a year, the network switches from a jock fest to a geek fest, as pubescent nerds reign supreme in the national spotlight—braces, glasses, growing-pain-bodies and all. As 1999 champion Nupur Lala relayed, "It's a very strange celebration of the underdog. It's like these bizarre kids who maybe don't get noticed as much."

To commemorate the beloved ritual and the victory of our latest annoyingly brilliant champions, we offer here a sampling of insights from some past winners. It's time to take a peek inside their quirky world of ‘i’ before ‘e’ and silent ‘g.’

On Surprise of the Mass Appeal

My first thought when they started broadcasting the bee was, 'Why would anybody care?' The first year, it was on CNN, and then ESPN wanted to broadcast it and there was a bit of a bidding war. ESPN seemed like such a mismatch to me, but they always said that when it went on in sports bars, people would just eat it up. —Katie Kerwin McCrimmon, 1979

On the Lure of Glory

All I wanted was to win in 1989. I had imagined myself receiving the last word and nailing the word and then hoisting the trophy up in the air. Honestly, I think I won 50 times in my head before I did. —Scott Isaacs, 1989 champion

Lights, Cameras, Action!

It was really exciting. . . the event is totally over-covered because it's sponsored by newspapers. So we each came with our own media representative. And there were DC reporters too, and a lot of TV cameras. —Katie Kerwin McCrimmon

On the Unity of the Geekhood

I was that kid who, if I would go over to a friend's house to play, and if there was a dictionary in the house, I would find my way over to the dictionary and just read it. —Scott Isaacs

We had all won a state or regional bee, and a lot of that stemmed from the fact we were a bit weird and had this freak talent we could all relate to. —Dan Greenblatt, 1984 champion

They had a barbecue . . . and then we'd all go to DC together, then have two days of spelling, and then two middle school type dances. It was a really geeky crew. It was hilarious. —Nupur Lala

On the Tragedy of Defeat

I can remember this particular moment. We were all doing well. There were like 150 of us, and only 20 had been eliminated. And they had been going off the words from Words of Champions but it's pretty small, like 100 pages at most. We didn't realize they were just going to switch to the dictionary . . . and the first word came out and it was like, ‘Where did that come from!’ Half of us got eliminated that round. It was a bloodbath in the crying room. —Dan Greenblatt

On the Thrill of Victory

After I spelled it, I saw one of the judges, I saw her nod, and I just went crazy. I went crazy and I spun around and was really emotional. I didn't know I'd had it in the bag, and it was incredible. —Katie Kerwin McCrimmon

Stars Are Born

Afterwards was really weird, and shaped me a lot. I had this crush of fame all of a sudden. Every news station in DC wanted to talk to me. Even that night, I remember they had to sequester me in a hotel room and then whisked me to New York. I did Charlie Rose that night and then the following morning I was on CBS. —Dan Greenblatt

They got you up at like 4:30 am and . . . you're shuttled around like a celebrity. They had a limo out front for the 1999 Spelling Bee champion, which is to a middle-schooler the most epic thing ever. —Nupur Lala

A few days later I was supposed to go to New York to do the Today Show and then John Wayne died. So I got bumped by John Wayne, which was obviously a bigger story. So I didn't get to do the Today Show. —Katie Kerwin McCrimmon

So hat tip to you, Spelling Bee youths of America. You carry the mantle of nerd-dom upon your broadening shoulders for a fleeting moment of general adoration—enjoy it! Just remember, while you may be briefly big, you’re still not John Wayne big.

Image: ThinkStock

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