Two Canadian girls vie to be 1st National Spelling Bee champ

When a precocious Canadian took her turn pretending to be a news reporter at a Washington museum two years ago, she signed off with a flourish.

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — When a precocious Canadian took her turn pretending to be a news reporter at a Washington museum two years ago, she signed off with a flourish.

“I’m Veronica Penny, the first Canadian Scripps National Spelling Bee champion, reporting from the Capitol,” she said.

Veronica is still working to make her proclamation reality. The 13-year-old from Rockland, Ontario, is back this week for her third appearance at the National Spelling Bee, hoping to become the first from her country crowned the top speller in the English language.

The “national” in the contest’s name has been a misnomer for many years. It’s really an international bee, attracting competitors from as far away as New Zealand, Ghana and South Korea. The 1975 winner came from Puerto Rico, and the 1998 champion hailed from Jamaica.

But there’s never been a winner from Canada, despite many close calls. Nate Gartke of Alberta was the runner-up in 2007, and 12-year-old Laura Newcombe of Toronto is back for the third time after finishing 17th in 2009 and fifth last year.

“People like to win for their hometown,” said Dalton Newcombe, Laura’s father. Winning for Canada, he said, would be “sort of like winning for your hometown, only bigger.”

Veronica and Laura are solid contenders at the bee that began Tuesday and concludes with the finals Thursday.

They’ve honed their skills competing against each other over the years and both said they spelled every word correctly during Tuesday morning’s first round, a written test of 25 words ranging from simple (“fourteen” and “drowsy”) to mind-boggling (“hukilau” and “pinealectomy”).

The scores from the written test will be combined with Wednesday’s oral rounds to determine the semifinalists.

While Veronica excitedly huddled with her mother to check her scores, Laura was on a different mission, to get the autographs of all 275 spellers at this week’s competition. She still had 71 to go and was darting across the room whenever she spotted one she didn’t have, keeping track with by scribbling numbers on a piece of paper.

She was stumped when asked which was more important to her, winning the bee or getting all the signatures.

“I don’t know,” she said, after a pause.

Her mother suggested the autographs were her daughter’s bigger goal, but that doesn’t mean that both aren’t possible. This is Laura’s last chance because she’s in the eighth grade, and she said she’s been studying a bit more — in her own multitasking way. Her preferred method is to play video games while her mother calls out words.

“I get bored if I have to spell for a looooong time,” Laura said, “so it helps to do something that I enjoy more as well.”

Even if there isn’t a Canadian winner, there are plenty of firsts at this year’s bee.

The event has grown so much that it needed a new home, so the competition is taking place outside of the District of Columbia for the first time.

The spellers and their families are encamped in a hotel and convention centre complex in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, a sacrifice of charm and downtown convenience for an auditorium big enough for the bee to sell tickets to the general public.

The extra space also meant that families and reporters could watch Tuesday’s written round for the first time.

It’s also the first bee without its original winner, Frank Neuhauser, who died March 11 at the age of 97. Neuhauser was treated like a rock star by the youngsters whenever he attended the bee, and he was able to rattle off the letters to his 1925 winning word — “gladiolus” — well into his 90s. Neuhauser gets a prime spot in the new “Hall of Champions,” which consists of banners and exhibits from the 83 previous bees.

And, of course, none of those past champions came from Canada, where spellers say “zed” instead of “zee” for the alphabet’s last letter, and where they have to remember that Americans have different spellings for words like “colour” and “honour” (not “colour” and “honour”).

Laura was the only Canadian representative last year because of cutbacks associated with the recession, but this year there are three. Veronica become one of the most photographed nonwinners ever in 2008 and 2009 because of the way she buried her head in her hands as if she were crying before spelling a word. She isn’t sure if she’ll do it again this year.

It’s always been quite a competition whenever Laura and Veronica have faced off in Canadian bees. Sometimes one wins, sometimes the other, but both families downplayed the nation of any sort of rivalry.

“I think the big rivalry,” said Laura’s mother, Zeu Ming Wong, “is with the dictionary.”

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