A local spelling champ is one step closer to returning to the national stage.
Ascension Academy’s Jeff Zheng won the Randall County Senior Spelling Bee on Tuesday and advanced to the 70th annual Regional Spelling Bee competition in March. Zheng bested 37 other fifth- through eighth-grade spellers — including classmate and runner-up Aditi Nair, 11 — during 24 rounds that included 400 words in the Canyon Junior High School cafeteria.
In 2017, Zheng, 13, represented Amarillo in the 90th annual Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C.
Zheng said he remained confident throughout most of the competition, but called the last few rounds — during which he went back-and-forth with Nair — an emotional roller coaster.
“The words that I knew, I knew, but a few of the other spellers got words that I wasn’t sure on, so kudos to them,” he said.
Round 1 of the bee lasted 26 minutes and whittled the number of competitors from 38 to 23. Round 2 lasted 12 fast-paced minutes during which words like tomatillo took students out of the competition and left 15 on the dais.
Cavia, purga and bowery were among the words that left nine students at the end of Round 3, and the misspelling of the word awl left seven students at the end of round five.
With the incorrect spelling of the word kuchen in the ninth round, just two boys and one girl remained.
Those three would verbally joust until the 12th round when one of the boys misspelled the word impeccable.
The competition seemed like it would come to an early end with Zheng misspelled guichet, but Nair could not claim victory because she did not spell the next word correctly.
The two would continue in that fashion, each misspelling a word and advancing. He misspelled fractur while she misspelled ghat; she then misspelled skirling while he did not spell prosecco correctly.
Finally, Nair incorrectly spelled the word serrated, leaving Zheng to claim victory with the word turducken.
“I love spelling for the thrill of it all,” Zheng said.
This is not unfamiliar territory for the young man who has competed in spelling bees since third grade.
When he is not spending an hour or two studying words, Zheng indulges in his other hobbies — mathematics and collecting quarters.
Nair found the final few rounds with Zheng nerve-racking after maintaining a high level of stress throughout the competition.
“I felt really stressed during the competition. I was scared they were going to ask (words) from the dictionary and they did,” she said.
Nair enjoys tennis and playing the violin and piano when she is not spending at least an hour a day studying her favorite subject, words.
“I like how cool the words can be and I like learning new definitions,” she said.
Nair said this was her fourth spelling bee competition and she did not intend on it being the last.
“I will keep on trying and (I’ll) be back next year,” she vowed.