Top Charlotte-area student spellers vie this week for best in the nation

(Update: All three of the students in this story survived Round One and will compete again Wednesday afternoon.)

The scariest moment in the Scripps National Spelling Bee is after you’ve spelled a word and repeated it. So says Katie Danis of Gaston Day School in Gastonia, who will participate in her third national bee this week.

“There’s a split-second of horror when you don’t know whether you’re going to hear that you spelled it correctly or hear the ding of the bell” that it was wrong, said Katie, 14. She placed 42nd last year and 56th in 2012. “It’s like a moment of unadulterated terror.”

Katie and fellow 14-year-olds Thomas Manning of Crest Middle School in Shelby and Mary Polking of Holy Trinity Catholic Middle School in Charlotte admitted last week they were a tad nervous heading into the competition against 278 others from eight countries. The competitors in the 70th national spelling bee in National Harbor, Md., include 11 others from North Carolina and six from South Carolina.

The winner gets $30,000 from Scripps, a $2,500 U.S. savings bond, a complete reference library from Merriam-Webster and $1,200 of reference works from Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Katie, Thomas and Mary survived local and regional competitions and logged countless hours spelling words with family and friends. And, as Thomas said, “usually when I get up there, I know the word or I don’t.”

Other interests helped calm them as they prepared for spelling bees, they said. Mary plays tennis and the piano, while Thomas competes in 5K races and half-marathons.

Katie, who’s sponsored by The Gaston Gazette, kept calm at last year’s spelling bee by singing her letters. She likes to sing most any song while playing the piano at home.

Mary, who’s sponsored by The Charlotte Observer, said she prepares for spelling bees by reading parts of the dictionary and studying words for up to a half-hour a day.

She enjoys reading, and her favorite book is “To Kill a Mockingbird.” She speaks a bit of French, Spanish, Latin and German.

She also volunteers helping teach children with special needs at her church. She hopes to visit Italy someday to soak in the art and history.

Katie went over words with friends and family, especially her mom, Jenna, who also found new words for her to study. Thomas likewise credited a host of family members.

The ace spellers said their strategy is to study words by their language of origin. That helps you recognize different spelling patterns, Katie said.

Katie loves everything about the Greek and Roman classics. Her best subject is Latin, and she hopes to become a classics professor. If she could meet anybody who has ever lived, it would be Aristotle so they could have rousing philosophical discussions, she said.

Katie, who’d love to visit Greece, recently received a perfect score on the National Mythology Exam and a summa cum laude rating on the National Latin Exam.

Thomas, who is sponsored by The Shelby Star, also was a district spelling bee finalist in 2012. He’s an active hiker who loves the “Harry Potter” and “Star Wars” series. His dream is to travel to New Zealand, where he wants to explore the film locations for “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit.”

Being in the spelling competition is helping his work ethic, Thomas said. Spelling also is important in college when writing papers, he said.

It’s also vital when writing a résumé, Mary said.

“Spelling is important in every possible career every person hopes to be in,” Katie said. “You also learn skills like diligence, organization, preparation and perseverance.”