Staunton River Middle School eighth-grader Sky Estrada clutched the microphone after nearly 50 rounds of spelling, six letters away from clinching a trip to the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
The word: aplome.
Its definition, according to Merriam-Webster: a dark brown or green variety of garnet containing manganese. The word is not to be confused with aplomb, as in total self-confidence — though Estrada certainly personified that on stage.
“Can you repeat the word?” Estrada asked the pronouncer, Ed Lynch. “Aplome,” he replied, calmly.
“A-p-l-o-m-e. Aplome,” said Estrada. The judges glanced at one another, nodded and repeated the most popular three words of the day.
“That is correct.”
Members of the crowd rose from their seats and cheered for the winner and fellow finalists. They’d stuck with The Roanoke Times 46th Annual Regional Spelling Bee for three hours.
Held inside the William Fleming High School auditorium, the contest tasked 19 students from public and private schools across Western Virginia to spell a variety of words.
The contestants are 15 years old and younger, and qualified for the regional bee by winning their school division or school-wide tournaments.
With the regional trophy, Estrada can compete in Washington, D.C., in the Scripps National Bee, a six-round contest aired annually on ESPN in late May. The Staunton River Middle Schooler had competed in Bedford County-wide competitions but never made it to a regional tournament, let alone won.
“I thought I’d probably get somewhere,” Estrada told The Roanoke Times. “But not here.”
Estrada studied long lists of complex words derived from multiple languages to prepare for the contest, said her dad, Gerry, who, along with the rest of the Estrada family, beamed with pride.
The difficulty of the words increased and the field shrunk as the bee progressed. By round 35, about half of the contestants remained. Lynch, a Hollins University professor who also served as pronouncer a year ago, told The Roanoke Times he was amazed by the spellers. Last year’s contest didn’t reach round 20.
One by one, spellers nailed tongue-twisters such as bromeliad, sarsaparilla, schottische, maladroit. The reading of one word, oodles, caused discreet giggles from competitors before Salem middle-schooler Aidan Poush spelled it correctly.
Spellers were cordial and encouraging of one another throughout the day, even as the competition narrowed to four and the tension heightened.
In the final rounds, Lynch dove deeper in the word list as the two judges, Botetourt County elementary teacher Cynthia Harris and Roanoke Catholic English teacher Catherine Schlesser, listened carefully.
The last four competitors remaining were Smyth County elementary schooler Allyson Gutierrez, Giles County middle schooler Russel Pauley, Estrada and Poush.
Four straight times, the competition came down to one speller, one word. And each time, the spelling was slightly off, forcing all four finalists back to the stage for another round.
“As that was happening, it was like, yes I can try again,” Estrada said of gaining new life in the bee. “But at the same time, I thought, wait, I have to do this again.”
After receiving the trophy, Estrada was met with congratulations from the other finalists. Staunton River Principal Justin Tucker and Assistant Principal Jessica Geyer also made the trip to support Estrada.
“It’s just great to see,” Tucker said. “She is so humble and hard working.”
Estrada is the regional bee’s first winner from Bedford County since 1999.