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A Fan's Notes: Under The Spell

Next week, while the NBA and NHL playoffs drag on, ESPN will turn its attention to the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Many will again wonder, "What's a kid's classroom activity doing on the quintessential sports network?" Commentator Victor Wishna has an answer, in this latest edition of "A Fan's Notes."

In the acoustic landscape of organized competition, there are those iconic sounds that separate the hope of victory from ultimate defeat: The buzzer. The horn. The final whistle. But none may be more chilling and spirit-draining than this one: Ding!

It’s the proverbial death knell of another young speller’s championship dreams. That’s proverbial: P-R-O-V-E-R-B-I-A-L. Proverbial.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee only happens once a year, and the 86th renewal takes place this coming week. If you’ve never seen it—but still call yourself a sports fan—I’m not sure how you’ve managed to escape its spell.

Sure, some might say spelling is not a sport, but the Bee has everything sports fans are looking for: Drama, wall-to-wall pressure, and a clear national champ at the end. It’s one-and-done, survive-and-advance, and every showdown at the microphone is its own two-minute drill.

For those for whom the bell tolls, there is shock and dismay. But there are also incredible feats of skill, mental toughness, and, ultimately, glory—all of it resulting from an unthinkable sense of determination and uncountable hours of preparation. Anyone who can recognize the particulars of the 4-3 or 3-4 defense or parse the meaning of on-base and slugging percentages should appreciate the talent it takes to distinguish between French and Italian Latin-derived word roots.

It’s about as full an experience as a spectator can enjoy on television. No matter how many pixels you pack into your HDTV, you’ll never be able to hit a fastball or make a tackle through the screen, but all you have to do is close your eyes—or block out the superimposed word with a strip of duct tape, like I do—and be part of the moment, spelling and playing right along. Of course, unless you’re the type who drops terms like cymotrichous, vivisepulture, and chionablepsia into your text messages, you shouldn’t expect to get too far.

For years, many of us were forced to savor the Spelling Bee like some guilty, secret pleasure—tucked away in the weekday afternoon TV schedule like it was the Westminster Dog Show. No more. Now, ESPN, “the worldwide leader in sports,” proudly presents the finals live in prime time, right between SportsCenter and Baseball Tonight. Last year’s broadcast averaged more than a million viewers—and I was certainly not the only one around here. Kansas City, as it turns out, was the Bee’s top TV market by a significant margin, according to the Nielsen Company.

This year, out of some 11 million spellers, 281 qualifiers will enter the preliminary rounds on Tuesday with hopes of making it to Thursday night’s final. The roster includes kids from all 50 states, plus Canada and Korea, Japan and Jamaica. Between highlights of Tiger Woods and LeBron James, ESPN is already pumping the pre-Bee hype. There are plenty of underdogs to profile, and amid all the middle-school awkwardness, even a prepubescent prima donna or two.

That’s prepubescent: P-R-E-P-U-B-E-S-C-E-N-T. Prepubescent.

If you’re looking for a hometown favorite, keep your eye on Speller Number 91. VanyaShivashankar, from Olathe, Kansas, is only 11, but she’s a vet, in her third consecutive National Bee. Last year, she finished tenth. And she’s got championship genes, too. Her sister, Kavya, won it all in 2009. This could be the next sibling dynasty: Peyton and Eli Manning. Venus and Serena Williams. Kavya and VanyaShivashankar.

Is that too much pressure to put on a sixth-grader whose bio lists her favorite pastime as playing with the family’s Labrador retriever?

Please. Pressure? She already plays two instruments, sings, dances, acts in plays, and plans to be a cardiac surgeon—remember, she’s 11. Oh, and her dog’s name is Champ.

In other words, she’s ready. The question is, are you?

Victor Wishna is a writer, editor, author, and sports fan.  He lives in Leawood.  You can hear “A Fan’s Notes” monthly on Up to Date.

Stephen Steigman is director of Classical KC. You can email him at <a href="mailto:Stephen.Steigman@classicalkc.org">Stephen.Steigman@classicalkc.org</a>.
Victor Wishna is a contributing author and commentator for Up to Date.