Understand that the competition had ended more than an hour ago with essentially the students proving themselves smarter than the dictionary and spelling bee officials throwing their hands up in surrender and declaring the eight remaining spellers to be co-champs.
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Yeah, were the self-identified octo-champs, Erin said in the interview early Friday morning with AL.com.
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Erin, a 14-year-old student at Mountain Gap School in Huntsville, had been through 17 rounds of spelling on Thursday over 13 hours with about a four-hour break mixed in. Thats 17 times of approaching the microphone before a national TV audience to hear the word that may break your heart.
“Disbelief, to be honest,” Erin said. “Because I never expected for this to happen. I had convinced myself that the bell was going to ring on me at some point today. And for whatever reason, it never did. So this is totally surreal.”
In “extraordinary” competition, the competitors remaining after the 20th round were crowned co-champions — and that included Huntsvilles Erin Howard, the pride of Mountain Gap School.
There was the $50,000 cash award for a first-place finish – which all eight co-champs will receive – to contemplate. And the first-place finisher was promised a trip to Hollywood for an appearance on ABCs Jimmy Kimmel Live! and to New York to appear on Live with Kelly and Ryan.
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“Frankly, I dont know how they are going to do that with eight champions,” Erin said. “Well just see how Jimmy Kimmel and Kelly and Ryan take that.”
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Its way past her bedtime – way past most anyones bedtime – and victory was still a difficult concept to grasp, not to mention the spoils of that victory.
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But lets talk about the word that almost broke Erins heart, the word that almost eliminated her from the competition, the word that almost rang the bell signifying a misspelling.
It was the first word given to Erin on Thursday morning when all 50 finalists were still in the competition. A gliocyte is “a cell of supportive tissue in the brain, spinal cord and ganglia.”
“Gliocyte, I dont believe I had ever seen before,” she said. “But I knew what a glia was and that the Greek root cyte meant cell, so I was able to piece that together fairly easily. Glia is spelled G-L-I-A. So gliocyte, if you insert the Greek combining letter o, then its G-L-I-O-C-Y-T-E.”
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Sixteen words later, it never got that difficult again for Erin. Round after round, she would approach the microphone, hear the word announced to be spelled and would instantly flash a sigh a relief. Usually it was a quick exhalation, then she was bounce at the microphone and nod her head.
“Yeah, I have no poker face,” Erin said. “None whatsoever. You can tell when I know a word and you can tell when I dont know a word.”
Yeah, not this time, fortunately, said Erin, who had finished in the top 10 in both 2017 and 2018.
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There were words such as enchytrae and Jindyworobak and zamacueca. And then there was Twickenham – a “former municipal borough in Middlesex in southeastern England,” according to the spelling bee – that just so happens to be an unmistakable part of her hometowns fabric.
ABOUT THE SCRIPPS NATIONAL SPELLING BEE The Scripps National Spelling Bee is the nations largest and longest-running educational program. The purpose of the Scripps National Spelling Bee is to help students improve their spelling, increase their vocabularies, learn concepts and develop correct English usage that will help them all their lives. Visit spellingbee.com for more information about the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which is administered on a not-for-profit basis by The E.W. Scripps Company.
As she advances to the National Spelling Bee championship rounds, Erin Howard gets a word that most anyone in Huntsville could spell. But could you also spell parergal and enchytrae?
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Then there was Komondor in the 16th round, which is “one of a Hungarian breed of large, powerful shaggy-coated white dogs and …”
Thats all Erin needed. The initial wave of terror of not immediately recognizing the word melted away seconds later. No poker face, remember?
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“Komondor in the primetime finals I didnt know as soon as I heard it,” she said. “But then I asked for the definition and that brought everything back and I saw it immediately after I heard the definition.”
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By this point, there were just eight spellers left. And no one was flinching. The girl from Alabama was joined by three competitors from Texas and one each from Pennsylvania, California, New Jersey and Maryland.
After the 17th round – in which Erin breezed through spelling “tulisan” – the spelling bee gave up.
Champion spellers, we are in uncharted territory, the bees word pronouncer, Jacque Bailly, said during the ESPN telecast. We have plenty of words remaining on our list, but will soon run out of words that can possibly challenge you — the most phenomenal assemblage of spellers in the history of this storied competition. We have thrown the dictionary at you, and so far, youve shown the dictionary whos boss.
And then the rules changed in midstream. The competition will end after the 20th round, Bailly announced. Whoever is still standing will be named co-champs.
“We thought they were just going to continue with the bee until they had reduced it to a decent number of co-champions and then maybe declare two or three people co-champions,” Erin said. “That was the prevailing idea between the eight of us.”
Her lousy poker face was on display for the next three rounds until finally Bailly gave her “erysipelas” to spell and Erin was almost beside herself in exhilaration.
She knew it instantly – dancing a bit at the microphone — but went through the process of asking for the words definition.
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E-R-Y-S-I-P-E-L-A-S made Erin the first Alabama national spelling bee champ since Julie Junkin of Pickens County in 1974.
And a little more than an hour after it was all over, in the wee hours of Friday morning, it still didnt seem real.
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“I think its going to take a while for all of it to sink in,” Erin said. “I think its starting to happen and its definitely a lot. I still can hardly believe it. All I can say is, wow. I never expected any of this to happen. But it did and Im very happy about it.”
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She gathered her composure enough to run through the list of thank-yous: To a long list of teachers named one-by-one at Mountain Gap School (OK, you dont have to write all of those names, Erin finally said) to the Huntsville Kiwanis Club for their longtime support of the Madison County Spelling Bee to Laura Pickens (P-I-C-K-E-N-S, Erin said), the spelling bee coordinator at Mountain Gap who attended the finals.
“And Adventure Travel (in Birmingham) has sponsored the Alabama state spelling bee champ for several years,” Erin said. “And Susan McDougal — M-C-D-O-U-G-A-L — she has been instrumental at the Alabama state spelling bee and her company Adventure Travel actually sponsors our family and our trip to Washington D.C. so she is really the reason I get to come here and compete.”
“I just checked my phone a couple of minutes ago and it was blowing up because the group chat with my friends was like full of She did it and Im so proud of her and just texts full of exclamation points,” Erin said. “And I was like, OK, thats wonderful. My friends are wonderful people and Im so thankful for them and all their support.
I think Ill just have to hang out with them a lot this summer and well just talk about how it went.