Seriously, Master Chef Junior is a distant second!

By Christopher Schultz
Updated May 26, 2016 04:45 PM
Credit: Alex Wong/Getty

If you haven’t been following the Scripps National Spelling Bee this week, you’ve been missing out on TV’s greatest reality show. (Seriously, the Bee’s sudden death format, and its spotlights – trained on contestants rather than judges – place Master Chef Junior a distant second!)

The annual event kicked off Tuesday with 284 contestants, but only 45 went on to compete on Thursday at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Md. Most of the participants are from the U.S., but students from other countries – who are also regional spelling bee winners – have competed in recent years.

As the remaining kids anxiously await the final rounds, to be broadcast live Thursday night on ESPN, here’s a list of the best reasons to tune in – and the stellar spellers you could keep your eyes on.

1. It’s once each year, for three days.
For TV purposes, it’s a single night, with everything at stake.

2. In a universe of reality shows built on mean-spirited competition and petty griefs, the Bee showcases a heartening ethos of support.
The high-fiving and fist-bumping after a speller conquers a hard word, the hugs of consolation when the bell dings someone off the stage – reality show contestants should aspire to this kind of childishness. If the National Harbor’s Maryland Ballroom is Narnia, the three days of the Bee – lorded over by earnest, big-hearted kids – are its Golden Age.

3. A pervading generosity doesn’t render the Bee boring.
The spellers’ intense focus at the microphone, facing the crowd and the cameras in nervous perspiration, creates high art. Pitted not so much against one another but against only words, they feel their way toward certainty or a best guess by asking for clues – part of speech, definition, language of origin, alternate pronunciations – and by requesting that the pronouncer to use their word in a sentence. The sentences, read drily by local celebrity pronouncer Jacques Bailly, can be funny. Some spellers elect not to laugh, lest they giggle themselves out of the moment.

4. One of the spellers this year is Akash Vukoti, a 6-year-old first-grader from Texas and the second-youngest contestant in Bee history.
Akash first competed in a bee before his third birthday. On Wednesday, the supportive roar of the crowd after Akash correctly spelled “inviscate” made him cover his ears. (As of August 31, 2015, participants cannot be older than fourteen.)

5. After two consecutive years crowning co-champions, this year’s Bee has some rule changes, in hopes of producing a single winner.
Most significantly, Wednesday’s words were not from a list that spellers could study, but were selected from the nearly half-million words in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary; and the championship round, featuring the top two or three spellers, is now 25 rounds rather than 25 words. These changes have opened up the field. It’s anybody’s Bee.

Here are a handful of superlatives from this year’s contest:

YOUNGEST SPELLER WHO’S SEEN IT ALL BEFORE: Cameron Keith, Longmont, Colorado

This week, universal wisdom came from the mouth of 9-year-old Cameron Keith, who lives outside Boulder, Colo., with his parents, sister Zoe, their dogs and cats, and ten chickens. Last year, Cameron was the Bee’s youngest speller; the fourth-grader is still small enough that the sizable makeshift trophy ESPN had spellers hoist during promotional shorts was instead placed next to him on the interview divan. Delivered in a soft, cheerful voice, his take on being a Bee veteran, but still ranking among its youngest competitors, reflects the feelings within many people, old and young.”It feels good, but it’s overwhelming with all these teenagers around me,” he said.

BEST PROMOTIONAL PHOTO: Chaunt Blackwood, Jamaica

The question isn’t why to include an Olympic gold medalist in a promotional photo for the Bee; the question is why not. In a truly wonderful image, Jamaican national champion Chaunt Blackwood smiles down at Webster’s Third New International Dictionary – the 13-year-old seventh grader has studied all 2,662 pages – with her fellow Kingstonian, 2008 Olympic gold medalist Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, considered by some to be the best female sprinter in history.

FANCIEST QUALIFYING CONTEST: Abby Burton, Nashville, Tennessee

Winner Abby Burton and the 44 other spellers in the Middle Tennessee regional bee got an 11th-hour upgrade from the crowded, windowless gymnasiums and civic center conference rooms that typically host bees. After news broke that a lack of sponsorship might cause the cessation of the Middle Tennessee bee, in stepped the Tennessee Titans, the first professional sports team to sponsor a bee. Competitors found themselves on Club Level at Nissan Stadium, a panorama of the Nashville skyline stretched behind them. Abby isn’t a football fan, but she described the setting as “big and exciting,” mentioning that her grandfather was thrilled to leave with a game ball signed by Titans running back Dexter McCluster, who was at the bee. Each speller received a Titans game ball and got to meet Titans mascot T-Rac. “All they need is space and support,” said Tina Tuggle, Titans director of community relations, of the regional bee. “We wanted to add the experience to that.”


Ramon “R.J.” Padua has traveled nearly 8,000 miles to represent Guam. To arrive at the Maryland Ballroom in National Harbor, Maryland, R.J. and his family left Guam early last Friday morning, rechecked bags in Honolulu, made a quick connection in Houston, and, 18 hours after leaving, landed at Reagan National Airport – where it was still Friday. The bubbly fifth-grader, who counts Spam-fried rice with Tabasco sauce among his favorite foods and wants to be a translator for the United Nations, reacted to the word “Zurich” this afternoon by saying, “I think I just mentally threw up.” Then he spelled it correctly.

MOST ASSERTIVE GRANDMOTHER: Maxwell Meyer, St. Paul, Minnesota

When news came out that St. Paul, Minn., had no sponsor for this year’s Bee, Maxwell Meyer’s grandmother reached out to a local reporter who had written about last year’s Bee, and pointed out an unacceptable travesty: A local speller who tied for 11th last year might not be able to return to the Scripps Bee. Shortly after, Minnesota Public Radio agreed to underwrite the contest. Maxwell defended his local title and is back.

LONGEST FAMILY BEE HISTORY: Cooper Komatsu, Culver City, California

Call Cooper Komatsu’s family, attending the Bee from Culver City, Calif., and you might hear a strange rattle in the background. His mother, Deborah, will laugh and say: “Scrabble tiles.” Last month, 13-year-old Cooper and a teammate won the North American School Scrabble Championships. He tied for 11th in last year’s Bee, and continues a legacy begun by his grandfather 61 years ago, who competed in 1955, and who is at the Bee this week.