After spelling the final word to win the Great Falls Elementary School spelling bee, fifth grader Diego Valencia did not cheer, laugh or even crack a smile. After 37 rounds, the 10-year-old stood patiently at the microphone, waiting for another word.
“I thought there was no way I was done,” Diego said. “I was sure I had more words left to spell.”
He does, but not until the countywide competition. With his win on Wednesday afternoon, Diego earned a place in the Fairfax County Spelling Bee, sponsored by Fairfax County Times. Great Falls Elementary’s spelling bee is one of many school contests taking place in February gearing up for the county bee at Lanier Middle School on March 13.
Diego will be well-prepared after Wednesday’s marathon.
The spelling bee started with 22 spellers — two students from each of the school’s fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade classes. The competitors had come out on top in class spelling bees last week. Now, on a stage in the school gym, they started to spell one by one.
After five rounds, half the students were eliminated. As the contest continued, more spellers fell by the wayside, stumbling on words such as “panache” and “prognosticate.” Diego showed no signs of stopping, speeding through words including “aerodynamic” and “isochronous.” His tongue nearly tripped over itself in its haste to get out the double “f”s in “chiffonade.”
Finally, after round 15, the field had narrowed to two.
Then a duel started. Diego spent 22 rounds volleying back and forth with sixth-grader Sammy Spaid.
The two went back and forth, back and forth. Several times, one misstepped and gave the other the chance to take the prize, but each time the possible victor misspelled what could have been the winning word.
The words had gotten progressively more difficult as the bee went on, but by that point, the words had moved beyond the students’ study lists and into unknown territory. Students were given 225 words to review, but after that, it was a grab bag of tricky terms.
“When they moved to the harder words that we hadn’t studied, I looked at Sammy, and she looked at me,” Diego said. “We knew right away.”
Still, Diego and Sammy pushed on. But as the rounds racked up, Great Falls Principal Ray Lonnett was eyeing the clock.
The spelling bee, initially slated for a 9 a.m. start, got moved to a 1:45 p.m. kickoff due to Wednesday’s two-hour weather delay.
“We thought that would give us plenty of time,” Lonnett said. “In years prior, it would have. But it was clear this year it was going on and on.”
With the 3:20 p.m. dismissal bell fast approaching, Lonnett interrupted round 29 to send the watching students back to their classrooms to pack up, with a promise to send out a message to parents with the final result.
“That way, they would be able to know the winner as soon as they got home — assuming we would know by then, of course,” Lonnett said. “There was really no way of knowing how long it was going to go.”
After the students filed out, the competition resumed, with just a small group of Diego’s and Sammy’s family members remaining.
Finally, in round 36, Diego spelled “superfluous” correctly, while Sammy missed on “derelict,” allowing Diego another chance to win. When he heard the final word — “accusatory” — he spelled it without hesitation.
Still, he did not celebrate, and only waited for yet another word he was sure would come — until the pronouncer told him, “Hey, you won!”
At that, he sagged a bit in relief.
“That was a lot of rounds,” he said later, holding his first place plaque.
He would know. Last year, as a fourth-grader, Diego made the top five, with four sixth-graders finishing ahead of him, according to his mother, Joanna Valencia.
After that, Diego caught the spelling bee bug, Joanna said. This year, he roped his three younger siblings, also students at Great Falls Elementary, into helping him study, getting them to put on spelling bees with himself as ringmaster.
While Diego is excited to move on to the county bee, he already has his sights set on next year.
“My brother Dante will be in fourth grade next year, and I’ll be in sixth,” Diego said. “If we both make the school spelling bee, we can compete together. That would be pretty cool.”