WASHINGTON D.C. — Despite bowing out of the Scripps Spelling Bee in the third round, Oswego Middle School eighth grade student Anna Cloonan is taking her experience at the historic contest in stride and enjoying her next few days in the nation’s capital.
A veteran of spelling contests at the regional level, Cloonan’s journey as a speller began this year with her preparation for the regional spelling bee in the Port City.
After placing in the top three in prior years, Cloonan — in her last year of eligibility for the national bee — claimed the throne as the top speller in Oswego in March.
Elementary and middle schools within Oswego City School District (OCSD), along with parochial schools in the city, sent 23 of their finest spellers to the regional finals in March. The local students fiercely competed to make it to the next round each time their names were called.
The regional contest lasted seven rounds, with an eigth and final round serving as the capstone for Cloonan to clinch her win. Cloonan correctly spelled the word “mootable,” meaning disputable or up for argument, and punched her ticket to the 92nd annual Scripps Spelling Bee taking place in the nation’s capital.
“I have been doing the spelling bee since the fourth grade and I study very hard every year,” an excited Cloonan told The Palladium-Times after her win at the regional stage. “It's great that I can win this on my final year."
Both Anna and her mom Pam Cloonan agreed, her success at the regional level was in part thanks to extensive preparation.
“She learned over 300 Greek and Latin roots that she knows the meaning of and can apply to spelling,” said Pam, who traveled to D.C. to support her daughter. “It’s not just memorization.”
Transitioning to her preparation for the national competition, Anna said she’d been putting her nose to the grindstone, studying for three hours or more every night and for the majority of weekends. As a seasoned spelling bee vet, however, Anna said the workload became easier to deal with as study sessions went along.
“I have a rhythm going now, I move between my different study methods and I do that for a while and then move on to something else,” Anna said, adding that she took breaks between study sessions to walk around her neighborhood.
Once in the nation’s capital, Anna had to clear a preliminary written test that preceded the bright lights that accompany the on-stage portion of the competition.
The written exam, according to Pam, contained dozens of vocabulary and spelling words and is used to narrow down the competition field. She said anything from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is “fair game.”
Following the preliminary test, competitors from across the country moved on to a second round of spelling where Scripps provided contestants with a list of 600 words for them to learn spellings and definitions.
As part of group three, Anna, as speller 263, stepped up and delivered during Tuesday’s second round, after official pronouncer Jacques Bailly assigned her the word “pablum” — which the Merriam Webster dictionary defines as “something (such as writing or speech) that is insipid, simplistic, or bland.”
“I was very nervous when I got up to the microphone, but when I heard the word I knew I was going to be fine because I had studied it,” Anna said. “After I spelled it right I felt relieved because that meant I was moving on to the next round.”
Moving into the third round posed its own set of challenges for Anna.
“I was extremely nervous and anxious for round three because I could get any word in the dictionary,” she said.
The word “stewardship” then became the only obstacle between Anna and a trip to the final rounds.
“After Dr. (Jacques) Bailly said ‘stewardship’ I felt kind of relieved because I knew the word and how to spell it,” Anna said, noting she felt extreme confidence. “I thought I had this round in the bag, and when they rang the bell, I was really confused.”
An errant “r” before the “w” in “stewardship” ended the eighth-grader's time at the contest, and in a state of disbelief, Anna said she couldn’t understand the situation.
“I didn’t recall doing this (adding an extra letter),” the young speller said. “My nerves got the best of me on a really easy word and it really stung because I knew the word.”
After taking some time to digest the situation, a collected Anna said she’s trying not to look back in regret.
“I try not to dwell on the silly mistake and be proud of making it that far,” she said. “It was an amazing experience that I will never forget. ‘Stewardship’ will forever be etched in my head.”
With the bee now concluded, Anna and Pam enjoyed a “relaxing” time touring the nation’s capital.
“We enjoyed our time together all week participating in the bee events, touring Old Alexandria and relaxing and shopping at the National Harbor in Maryland,” Pam said.
Now transitioning into high school, and with her last year as a speller behind her, Pam said Anna learned a valuable lesson during her time in Washington.
“She learned this week that in a spelling bee you can’t lose, you can only learn,” Pam said. “That is the big takeaway.”