Can you spell DeWitt? Seventh grader headed to D.C. for national spelling contest

May 24, 2019

Payton Smidt is a singer in her school choir, a clarinetist in her school band, a runner and jumper on her middle school track team and, as it turns out, a top-notch speller.

That last skill catapulted her to first place in the county spelling bee three years running and in March sent her to Omaha to the Midwest Spelling Bee and — following the trajectory of other ace spellers who win such competitions — earned her a ticket to Washington, D.C.

On Monday, the seventh grader at Tri County Schools in DeWitt — enrollment 402 — will join 564 other students ages 7 to 15 to compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

The spelling bee — where the final contestants battle it out in front of millions of viewers on ESPN — is the country’s premier spelling competition that draws students from all 50 states, the U.S. territories, the Bahamas, Ghana, Jamaica, Japan and South Korea.

Texas, according to the Scripps website, fields the most competitors and this year, they’ll be joined by a young woman who lives in a town of around 500 people smack dab in the middle of the country.

“I’m really excited,” said Payton, who will travel with her mom, Mandy, a school speech pathologist, her dad, Brian, an engineer at Exmark Manufacturing, and brother, Brian, a fourth grader. They’ll spend a week in the nation’s capital.

“It’s a great vacation. There’s lots of things to see and do in Washington, D.C.,” she said. “I’m excited to be there representing small-town Nebraska.”

She’s also a bit nervous.

“I end up thinking about it for a long time, then I find something else to do,” she said.

She was nervous when she correctly spelled “Vitrine,” ending what one of the Midwest Spelling Bee judges said was the lengthiest and most competitive bee he’d been involved in, and she faced only about 70 competitors in that match.

“I didn’t stop shaking for about 10 minutes after I spelled my final word,” she said. “I thought it was like a dream. It went by really fast.”

She’d been selected by the county spelling bee folks to compete in Omaha after winning the older age division in the county competition.

Schools select students for the county bee, usually based on classroom competitions, said Payton’s mom, and her daughter already had won twice in the younger division.

Payton used a spelling website to help her prepare, and she wanted to do her best, but didn’t study to the exclusion of all else (she also takes piano lessons and is involved in church activities).

“I wasn’t like going to go all in for it,” she said. “I thought it was good experience and I did not expect to win.”

Mandy Smidt said her daughter has been a voracious reader since she was young.

“She started reading when she was 4 and did some writing early on,” her mom said. “There’s lots of teachers in the family. Some of that just comes naturally.”

She’ll have to put that natural talent to work beginning this weekend when she begins a week’s worth of competition at the national bee.

Competitors take a preliminary multiple choice test when they get there, then the next two days are elimination rounds. Each speller has one word, and if they get it wrong they’re eliminated, Smidt said.

On Wednesday, they announce the spellers — no more than 50 — who will advance to the finals. On Thursday, they spell on stage until they’re winnowed down to about 12 finalists — and the finals competition will be broadcast live on ESPN.

There’s a picnic and opening ceremonies, a Friday evening awards banquet for all participants and some time set aside for sightseeing.

“It’s very exciting. We don’t know quite what to expect. People who’ve done it talk about how great the experience was,” said Mandy Smidt. “We just want her to do her very best. We want her to try hard and put as much effort into it as she can.”

They know that some kids are really committed — like never-leave-your-hotel-room-all-week committed.

Payton probably won’t do that, but she’s gotten some advice from a judge at the Midwest competition, who had a daughter who competed, and she’s used study guides from the Scripps website.

The one she’s focusing on has 600 words competitors will get in round two. You study 600 words — the spelling, the pronunciation and the origin — and you get one of them, she said.

She’d read it through once as of last week, and was far from done.

“I need to go through it again,” she said. “And again. And maybe a couple more times after that.”

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