WASHINGTON – Aliyah Alpert had predicted that the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee would be much harder than the first two days of competition. Turns out she was right.
The Prescott 11-year-old was the youngest contestant among the 13 finalists Thursday night – down from the original 229 spellers – and had breezed through the first seven rounds. But she was eliminated in the first round of the finals by the word “ajivika,” a 6th century B.C. nontheistic sect from India.
Aliyah, drawing on her knowledge of words derived from Sanskrit, spelled it ajivaka, and heard the dreaded bell indicating a misspelled word.
But Aliyah said afterwards that she was just happy to be part of the bee and to get as far as she did.
“I am glad I didn’t go out until the last night, so I was really able to experience everything,” she said, adding that she felt “lucky” to make it to the finals when spellers better than her were getting eliminated in earlier rounds.
It was the culmination of years of studying to get here and a week of competition to get to the finals. Aliyah, who won the state championship in March, was the only speller from Arizona in the national competition.
For most of her turns on stage during the preliminary rounds, Aliyah was composed, asking relatively few questions of the pronouncers and answering with a minimum of hesitation. But when the finalists took the stage Thursday, the mood was different for everyone.
The spellers displayed lots of hesitation from the get-go, with the first contestant asking for the words and definition multiple times, but still getting out in the first round. The formerly composed Aliyah was squirming in her seat, partially hunched over and breathing heavily, rubbing her knees while making herself small in her chair.
When her turn came, she asked for all the information on ajivika, then for any alternate pronunciations, and finally to repeat all the information again. But she was a letter off.
In a backstage interview with Bee host LeVar Burton, she said she thought there would be a third “a” in the word based on her knowledge of Sanskrit, which often uses the letter A.
After the bee, she was composed again, though her eyes looked a little red and glassy. Even though she did not win, she said the highlight of the bee was “sharing all the emotions with the finalists. We all really had the same feeling, we were all rooting for each other.”
Her dad, Mark Alpert, who spent hours quizzing Aliyah every day for months as she studied for the bee, said he was disappointed, but agreed that they were just happy to be there.
“It is like when you go to a casino and you are playing on the house’s money,” he said. “We did not expect to be this far.”
The bee ended in a speed round after the last two spellers, Vikram Raju and Harini Logan, were deadlocked through six rounds. Each got 90 seconds to correctly spell as many words as possible and Harini, 14, of San Antonio, won with 22 words to Logan’s 15.
Aliyah still has a couple years of bee eligibility left and said she plans to compete in the future. But for now, she said, she is going to need at least a few months break from studying.
Long-term goals for the home-schooled sixth-grader include becoming an exotic avian veterinarian and getting her pilot’s license – to which her dad teasingly said, “Ain’t gonna happen.”
Her short-term goals included sleeping for the rest of Thursday night, and joining the other finalists Friday on a private tour of the White House.
“It was just revealed to us this morning and I am so excited,” she said Thursday.