Spelling Bee champ won hearts while using her mind
First she aced the written test. Then 14-year-old Emma Ciereszynski went on to win this year's New Hampshire Spelling Bee.
But even before the eighth-grader from Dover Middle School spelled out E-T-E-S-I-A-N to capture the championship, Ciereszynski had won over the crowd with her nervous, often humorous asides each time she came to the microphone to spell a word.
She will represent her state at the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., in May. And the whole family - parents Edward and Donna, sister Lili and brother Evan - will go along.
This year's bee, the 59th annual, had a different format and a different venue. Instead of regional contests held in past years leading up to the state bee, the nearly 200 spellers who had won their school contests arrived at the Capitol Center for the Arts Saturday morning for a written test.
Those with the top 30 scores went on to the afternoon's oral competition in front of their families, friends and teachers. With four students tying for 30th, there were 33 spellers on the big stage.
Just before 1 p.m., Teresa Robinson, community relations manager for the New Hampshire Union Leader, which sponsors the state bee, called the 33 winners to the stage. At that point, the parents in the audience were looking way more nervous than the young spellers.
Spelling bees are not for the faint of heart.
To get through even the first couple of rounds, students had to spell their way past 'malihini,' 'pochismo,' 'illuminati,' 'tokamak' and 'waterzooi.'
► Photo gallery: 2012 NH Spelling Bee
In the fourth round, an hour into the contest, veteran pronouncer Carolyn D'Aquila - herself the state champ in 1996 - announced she was moving past the words the students had studied in their 'Spell It!' guides.
Two rounds later, just nine spellers were left. 'You guys are really good!' D'Aquila proclaimed.
But 'nimbed,' 'cincture' and 'jimberjawed' reduced the field to six for Round 7. Ciereszynski got 'rambla.'
'Excuse me?' she asked. D'Aquila repeated it, and gave the definition: 'A dry ravine.'
'Oh, OK, that's very helpful,' Ciereszynski said unconvincingly. But seconds later, she said, 'I'm just going to take a guess here' - and spelled it correctly.
After eight rounds, only Ciereszynski and runner-up Anna Ellis, 14, an eighth-grader from Lakeland School in Meredith, remained on the stage.
Ciereszynski yelped, 'Yay!' as she drew the word 'irrepressible' and spelled it easily. Ellis did the same with 'billabong,' and it was on to Round 10. Ciereszynski had no problem with 'altazimuth,' but Ellis stumbled on 'lineaments.'
To become champion, Ciereszynski, who had spelled her way through 'moorage,' 'oakenshaw,' 'qwerty,' 'recidivist,' 'fete' and 'renascent,' had to spell one final word correctly. When she got 'etesian,' she moaned, 'Oh God.'
And after exhausting all the questions that under spelling bee rules a contestant can ask the pronouncer (Can you repeat the word? Give me a definition? The language of origin? Use it in a sentence?), she asked D'Aquila hopefully, 'Is there anything else you can give me?'
'It's an adjective - and it's on page 780 in the dictionary,' D'Aquila offered with a grin.
After Ciereszynski correctly spelled the word, she first turned to Ellis to offer her congratulations, then sank onto her chair in happy tears.
During the trophy presentation, two spellers were singled out for getting perfect scores on the 50-word written test: Ciereszynski and Isabelle Halle, 14, an eighth-grader from Portsmouth Middle School.
Ciereszynski, who has competed in the state spelling bee every year since fourth grade, said she had woken up Saturday morning from a dream that she had won: 'Everybody was really, really happy, and I had a great party.'
Her dream came true hours later. 'It's sort of surreal,' she said.
Runner-up Anna Ellis, the daughter of Julia Ellis and David Krzywicki, also had a dream about the spelling bee, but hers was a nightmare: 'I was in 'The Hunger Games' instead of the spelling bee,' referring to the book and upcoming movie about a contest-to-the-death.
Ellis, who was making her third and final appearance in the state spelling bee, said having the competition in front of a large crowd at the Capitol Center this year was 'exciting.'
'It was fun. I really enjoyed it,' she said.
Ciereszynski 'gave her all,' Ellis said. 'She's been here since fourth grade, and she really deserved the title. I can't wait to see her on TV.'
To prepare for Saturday's bee, Ciereszynski said, 'I studied a lot. Hours and hours every day.'
But when you get a word you've never heard before, she said, 'Sometimes you just need to use what you can get and figure it out from there.'
She thinks it also helps that she's always been an avid reader, starting to read when she was just 2. 'I'm a huge J.K. Rowling fan,' she said.
Her mom, Donna, said her daughter is a typical 14-year-old: 'She loves horseback riding, reading. She loves her friends. She loves her parents, most of the time.'
When the contest was over, one of the youngest spellers, 9-year-old Karishma Manchanda, a fourth-grader at Webster Elementary School in Manchester, came up to congratulate Ciereszynski - and offered some advice.
'Do your best. Study hard. No more breaks for you!' the younger girl told her. 'We'll be cheering for you on television!'