NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. (AP) — The spelling contest in Tokyo that sends a representative to the Scripps National Spelling Bee was scheduled for March 12, a day before the devastating earthquake.
The accompanying tsunami created a national crisis that understandably put spelling on hold. The bee was postponed twice before it was finally held May 14. The winner was Yuichi Yoshioka, whose family then had to make quick preparations to fly to the United States.
"I was quite prepared on March 11, and then the earthquake struck," said Yuichi, a 12-year-old seventh grader at the Global Indian International School in Tokyo. "And after that the whole month of April I started to relax a little bit because I thought 'Oh, maybe there won't be a spelling bee.' That was a big mistake. I had to study double-time from late April, and somehow I managed to win with a word I didn't know."
The word was presentient.
Yuichi's family, like most of the country, is dealing with the emotional trauma of a national catastrophe. His aunt lived near the now-crippled nuclear power plant and has relocated to a hotel in Tokyo. Aftershocks made studying an adventure.
"My son is studying for the spelling, and when we see the lights starting to shake, we stop for a while," said his mother, Ellen Yoshioka. "We don't know what will happen."
Yuichi gets his spelling prowess from his mother, who excelled in English spelling bees while growing up in the Philippines. He's been bilingual essentially since he started talking and began attending an international school at age 5. He is one of 29 spellers among the 275 who don't speak English as a first language.
"I don't even think I speak English," he said modestly.
But he can spell it.
REMEMBERING FRANK: Frank Neuhauser was always treated like a rock star whenever he attended the Scripps National Spelling Bee. The spellers would form endless lines to get his autograph, even though he was he was eight, nine or even 10 times their age.
Neuhauser won the first national bee in 1925, acing the word "gladiolus" — which happened to be a kind of flower his family grew back home in Louisville, Ky. He died March 11 at the age of 97.
"More than anything, he loved to come to the bee and look the spellers in the eye and shake their hands," said bee Director Paige Kimble. "... He was such a gracious and warm person, and an inspiration to all the kids who met him."
Neuhauser was 11 years old when he was one of nine spellers at the inaugural bee. All went to the White House to meet with President Calvin Coolidge. The entire competition lasted only 90 minutes. His prize was $500 in gold pieces and a medal, and he was feted with a parade when he returned to Louisville.
He became a successful patent attorney and last visited the bee in 2008.
The second bee winner also died recently. Pauline Bell, who won in 1926, died Dec. 17 at age 98.
Bell's winning word was "cerise," so organizers have placed an arrangement of cerise-colored gladioli at the base of the trophy pedestal this week to honor the first two champions.
SPRAWL GOES THE BEE: For the first time, the Scripps National Spelling Bee isn't being held in Washington, D.C.
The new location is only a few miles to the south, along the Potomac River in Maryland, but the switch to the suburbs represents a major change.
Gone are the days when spellers and their families could take advantage of free hour or two and stroll to the monuments and museums. The new place — a massive hotel and convention center — doesn't even have a subway stop.
"It's far from the attractions, that's the only thing," said Pam Penny, mother of speller Veronica Penny from Ontario.
The Pennys skipped the spellers' annual picnic Memorial Day to go into the capital, where Veronica met "Wheel of Fortune" host Pat Sajak and stumped him with the spelling of the word "sacrilegious."
But the bee needed room to grow. A bigger auditorium means that all spellers and their families can attend every round without having to ration tickets. In additions, some tickets were available for sale to the public. The bee has also erected a "Hall of Champions" that pays tribute to past winners.
"We felt like this was a great event that more people deserved to see," bee Director Paige Kimble said. "We started planning this three years ago. We look forward to opening our doors to more people."
And, besides, notes Kimble, they're not that far from D.C.
"We love Washington, D.C., and Washington, D.C. has supported this event," Kimble said. "That's why when we started searching for a new home, we made a point of staying near Washington, D.C."
THEY CAN SPELL DUMBLEDORE: Harry Potter is simply magic for this year's 275 spellers at the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
J.K. Rowling's books rank as the favorite fiction in the annual spellers' poll, and the Harry Potter series is the choice for favorite movies.
Pizza is the favorite food, and basketball the favorite sport. The No. 1 career goal: physician.
Once again, most of the spellers (65.3 percent) come from public schools. Only 27 are home-schooled.
The youngest speller is eight, and the oldest is 15.
Joseph White can be reached at http://twitter.com/JGWhiteAP