for The Canton (Ohio) Repository

May 27, 2009

WASHINGTON D.C. — On stage at the Scripps
National Spelling Bee today, Tony Incorvati landed
both of the words he was asked to spell.

But the results of a preliminary written test kept
Canton’s spelling champ out of Thursday’s
semifinals, having come up just two words shy of
the points he needed to advance.

The Canton Country Day student, 11, who had
claimed his second consecutive title at this year’s
63rd Regional Grand Final Spelling Bee —
sponsored by The Repository — put in a long day
of spelling at the national competition in

And though he closed the day with a perfect result
— two for two — his spelling career focuses now
on next year as he watches Thursday’s finals from
the sidelines.  

Just 41 of the 293 competitors advanced past
today’s preliminary rounds. The contest director
took the stage to say just whom that 41 included.
“I’m shaking like a leaf,” she said. “I know what
this means to you.”

As the scores were announced and Tony didn’t
make it, his mom, Nancy, leaned in and said, “You
know we’re all proud of you.” His bleak look
matched dozens of other faces throughout the

After getting 11 hours of sleep the night before, the
boy had been nervous at breakfast, saying the
stress already was sapping his reserve. Going into
his day of on-stage, he was thinking of how great it
would be to make it to the next day — the rarefied
country of the semifinals, maybe even the finals.

He called it “a really suspenseful day today
because I have a chance to make it.”

Under the bright lights, Tony knocked down his
first word, “tiers,” as if he were the town’s
resident gunslinger, practically blowing the smoke
from his pistol as he returned to his place on the
red-carpeted stage to wait through the challenges of
his peers.

Coming off the stage between rounds, he
demonstrated his “two pairs of crossed fingers,”
believing he had a decent shot at advancing.

His mom, Nancy, stood by to keep him centered.
“We’re just going to do our Tony best, right?” she
said to him, suggesting his personal best — no
matter how it compared with the other spellers —
was all his family could ask. But he was already
working out calculations, his percentage odds of
advancing, which he was starting to rate fairly high.

Spelling isn’t a career. In the age of computer spell-
check, it’s barely an educational mandate. So the
national bee is a pursuit of pure intellect — an
annual moment in which the lovers of words shine,
are even treated like sports heroes worthy of
broadcast on ESPN. And this ballroom is their
sanctuary, protected by banks of metal detectors
and closed to the general public while young
gladiators face their common opponent.

As Tony’s mother reminded: “Your only foe is the

There was a constant rhythm to the event. All day,
the basement ballroom filled with letters — an
eternal, methodical recitation, letter upon letter
until words were made and the audience produced
bursts of applause. Time after time, spellers asked
for their words to be used in a sentence — one of
the allowances of the contest. And the professional
“pronouncer” delivered high-brow sentences the
likes of which would seldom be heard outside of
think tanks or intellectually elite conclaves.

Between rounds, children and parents milled in the
halls outside the ballroom. Kids 13 and 14, wearing
contestant numbers on their chests, held court in
front of television cameras.

The afternoon round was much tougher. The words
came creeping out of the far corners of academia,
obscure biology, religion and foreign menus.
Mistaken spellings piled up, derailing about a third
of the spellers.

When Tony’s turn came again, he stood at the
microphone to receive his next word, a piece of
vocabulary familiar to Mexican chefs: “jicama.” It’s
a vine with an edible root. And it’s a word with
letters that were easy — for Tony — to recite.

As the 5-foot-2 competitor had said earlier in the
day: “I do well under pressure.”

Tony spells like a veteran academic. But he’s most
definitely 11. He fidgets. He likes games —
baseball, chess, video games and, no surprise,
Scrabble. As he stressed over the spelling
competition, he was jazzed about the friends he
has at this event — this year’s new ones and the
ones he met last year.

“You get to meet a new group of friends every
year,” said Tony, who clearly intends to return to
meet another batch next year.

So, today, he’ll cheer other spellers through the last
rounds. And before he leaves Washington, he
intends to get some serious Scrabble in.

As he declared today: “On Friday, we’re playing
all day.”