Mary Polking had made it to the 10th round of Monday’s 60th annual Charlotte Observer Regional Spelling Bee when she was disqualified.
Moments later, the Holy Trinity Middle School eighth-grader appealed the decision. She said she had heard “stripped” instead of “strict” from pronouncer Taylor Batten, the Observer’s editorial page editor, during the vocabulary portion.
Attendees murmured as the judges met privately.
After several minutes, they decided to reinstate Mary – who ended up winning the bee in the 34th round. She received an all-expenses-paid trip, courtesy of the Observer, to Washington, D.C., for the 88th Scripps National Spelling Bee in late May.
“I’m so proud. She’s a very bright girl,” said her mom, Jean Polking, 41. “We felt it would be a tragedy for her to go out on a misunderstanding of the pronunciation.”
Twenty-six students from across the Carolinas competed Monday in the spelling bee at the Wells Fargo Playhouse at ImaginOn. Spellers ranged from grades three through eight.
Davis Troutman, representing Mecklenburg County independent schools, came in second, and Ashwin Subramaniam, of Union County Public Schools, finished third.
It was Mary’s first appearance in the regional spelling bee. Last year, she lost during her class spelling bee.
To prepare this year, Mary 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.”
Besides the trip to the national bee, her other prizes included a Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, the Samuel Louis Sugarman Award and a one-year subscription to Encyclopedia Britannica Online.
Mary’s appeal that kept her in the bee was the first in recent years.
It was also the first time the bee had a vocabulary portion, which judge Ellyn Ritterskamp said organizers added because the national bee has one.
The addition this year requires students to choose a word’s definition from two options.
“She misheard the word – normally that’s on her, but it was our first time doing vocabulary, and we had not said out loud to the kids that they could ask for spelling,” Ritterskamp said.
Ritterskamp also added that the definition provided for strict – “complete and thorough” – was a weak one.
“We generally want to err on the side of the competitor if there is doubt,” she said.
Mary joined three other holdouts in Round 19: Davis, Ashwin and Brandon Kaminski of Catawba County.
Brandon was disqualified in that round when he misspelled “betta,” and Ashwin was disqualified in Round 22 when he misspelled “cantilever.”
At Round 23, Mary had the chance to secure a win after Davis misspelled his word, “emissivity,” and she spelled “optimization” correctly.
But the bee returned to a tie when Mary misspelled the would-be championship word, “reservoir,” during Round 24.
For 10 more rounds, Mary and Davis battled back and forth, with one gaining an advantage, only to return to a tie after misspelling a second word.
About two-dozen rounds after she initially was disqualified, Mary secured her win by spelling “abalone” and her second word correctly in Round 34.
Her winning word, “plexure,” is a noun that means the act or process of weaving together.
“I’ve never made it this far,” she said. “It’s exciting.”