Mary Polking’s tale of triumph during Monday’s regional spelling bee bore a resemblance to the mythical phoenix.
During round 10 of 34, the eighth grader from Holy Trinity Middle School was disqualified when she answered incorrectly during the vocabulary portion of the 60th annual Charlotte Observer Regional Spelling Bee. The new addition this year requires students to select the definition of a word provided by choosing from two options.
But moments later, Polking, 14, appealed the decision, saying she had heard the word “stripped” instead of “strict” from pronouncer Taylor Batten.
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Attendees excitedly murmured as the three judges, spelling bee round monitor and Batten privately met and decided whether to readmit Polking.
They did. And twenty four rounds later, she won the entire spelling bee by spelling “abalone” and then “plexure” correctly.
“I’m so proud. She’s a very bright girl She reads very quickly and abundantly,” said her mom Jean Polking, 41. “We felt it would be a tragedy for her to go out on a misunderstanding of the pronunciation of a vocabulary word in a spelling bee.
Judge Ellyn Ritterskamp said it was the first time in recent years that there had been an appeal.
It was also the first time the Bee had a vocabulary portion, which Ritterskamp said they added because the national bee has one.
“She misheard the word - normally that's on her, but it was our first time doing vocab, and we had not said out loud to the kids that they could ask for spelling,” said Ritterskamp.
Ritterskamp also added that the definition provided for strict, which was “complete and thorough,” was not great to start.
“The definition she chose (“exhausted”) did fit the word she thought she heard (“stripped”), better than the other one, anyway,” she said. “We generally want to err on the side of the competitor if there is doubt, and there was just enough doubt here that we all agreed.”
Twenty-six students from across the Carolinas competed Monday in the 60th annual Bee at the Wachovia Playhouse in ImaginOn.
Spellers grades 3 through 8 competed for an all-expenses-paid trip, courtesy of the Observer, to Washington, D.C., for the 88th Scripps National Spelling Bee in late May.
Other prizes for the champion included a Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, the Samuel Louis Sugarman Award and a one-year subscription to Encyclopedia Britannica Online.
Davis Troutman, representing Mecklenburg County independent schools, came in second place and Ashwin Subramaniam, of Union County Public Schools, came in third.
The bee started promptly at 10 a.m., with the first student dropped from the competition by misspelling “caboose” in the first round.
For round 15, the competition switched to words that contestants had not studied on a list beforehand.
By round 19, there were four holdouts: Polking, Troutman, Subramaniam and Brandon Kaminski of Catawba County.
Kaminski was disqualified in that round when he misspelled “betta” and Subramaniam was disqualified in round 22 when he misspelled “cantilever.”
At round 23, Polking had the chance to secure a win after Troutman misspelled his word, “emissivity,” and she spelled “optimization” correctly.
But it returned to a tie when she misspelled the would-be championship word, “reservoir” incorrectly during round 24.
For 10 more rounds, Polking and Trouting battled back and forth, with one gaining an advantage, only to return to a tie when they misspelled their second word.
Ultimately Polking secured her win by spelling “abalone” correctly in round 33 and her second word correctly in round 34. “Plexure,” a noun with Latin and English parts, means the act or process of weaving together.
“I was really impressed with her spelling the later words, the one’s she’d never seen or heard before,” said Batten. “She reasoned through them and figured them out pretty well.”
Polking said Monday was her first appearance in the regional spelling bee. Last year, she lost during her class spelling bee.
To prepare this year, she said she enlisted the help of her brother and friends, studying the book of vocabulary words frequently.
She marked those words that she thought were the hardest as well as those that seemed too easy because “they can trip you up too.”