Published May 28, 2012
The youngest person ever to qualify for the National Spelling Bee was running around in a stream with a friend, hunting for rocks. Suddenly, she came charging up the bank and headed straight for her mother.
"Hold on to that basalt," Lori Anne Madison said in a bossy 6-year-old's voice, "and do not drop it."
"Go away," her mother, Sorina Madison, said playfully.
She talks at 100 mph. In the last few weeks, she has won major awards in both swimming and math, but one accomplishment above all has made her an overnight national celebrity: This week, the precocious girl from Lake Ridge, Va., will be onstage with youngsters more than twice her age and twice her size as one of 278 spellers who have qualified for the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
"She's like a teenager in a 6-year-old body," Sorina said. "Her brain, she understands things way ahead of her age."
It's hard to argue with that, especially after spending a couple of hours with Lori Anne and her friends as they splashed in the waters on a sunny day at the Scotts Run Nature Preserve in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.
"Oh my gosh, what is it? A water worm. A water worm! It's alive," said Lori Anne, her shoes soaked from more than an hour of exploring. "I need it in my collection. It's wonderful."
There's been no need for Lori Anne's parents to push her to do anything -- because she's already way out in front dragging them along. Some kids are ahead of the curve physically, mentally or socially from a very young age. Lori Anne is the rare exception who defies the norms in every category.
She hit all her milestones early, walking and talking well before others in her play group. She was reading before she was 2. She swims four times a week, keeping pace with 10-year-old boys, and wants to be in the Olympics. When her mother tried to enroll her in a private school for the gifted, the headmaster said Lori Anne was just way too smart to accommodate and needed to be home-schooled.
"Once she started reading, that's when people started looking strange at us, in libraries, everywhere, she's actually fluently reading at 2, and at 2 1/2 she was reading chapter books," Sorina said.
That meant an unexpected lifestyle change for the mother, a college professor who teaches health-related courses. Lori Anne now studies at home, mastering topics other kids her age won't touch for several years. She wants to be an astrobiologist -- a combination of her two favorite subjects, astronomy and biology.
And she speaks so fast, with well-formed diction and a touch of know-it-all confidence -- just like a teenager.
"She out-argues both of us, and my husband is a trial lawyer," Sorina said with a laugh.
Now there's another wrinkle: spelling bee fame. When Lori Anne spelled "vaquero" to win the regional bee in Prince William County in March, she set a new standard for youth in the national bee's 87-year history.
"It was shocking," Sorina said. "I didn't expect all the media attention. We're private people. We're regular people. It was intimidating. But I'm happy for her. She loves it and she does it because it's a passion, and we never push her into anything and want her to make her own choices."
Interviews can be boring for a 6-year-old, especially if it's a television setting where she has to sit and sit and sit, so she pulled the plug, telling her mother: "I want to go back to being a kid and playing with my friends."
So a detente was reached. Lori Anne was more than happy to let a reporter and photographer from The Associated Press tag along at a picnic with other gifted home-schooled children, but she craftily steered any questions about spelling back toward the joint pursuit of snails, slugs, tadpoles, water striders, baby snakes and other slimy things in the creek.
On all the attention she's getting: "I asked for no interviews, but the media seems to be disobeying me, and that's why we're looking for snails and water slugs right now."
On why she wants to be an astrobiologist: "I'm going to sort of find life forms. And, plus, alien planets are new. But I need some slugs."
Asked to spell her favorite word, she raced through the letters of "sprachgefuhl" like a blur. Asked to spell it backward, she paused a bit and had to take her time, but she got it right.
"It's even crazier backwards than it is forwards," she said with a giggle, her hand holding a collection jar and her eyes focused on the wet rocks. "Now let's look for some slugs or snails."
By now, the jar contained a diversity of small living things, with the help of Lori Anne's friends. The children in the group are also smart and accomplished -- there's a boy who has been studying calculus at age 8 -- but there's something noteworthy about being in the bee.
"Are you that girl who won the spelling bee?" one boy asked.
"That's me," Lori Anne said.
The bee doesn't have a lower age limit, but no one younger than 8 had ever previously qualified for the nationals. Spellers can compete until they're 15, or until they've completed eighth grade.
No one is expecting Lori Anne to win the national bee this year. Just being there is a unique accomplishment, and making it beyond the preliminaries on Tuesday and Wednesday would be another stunning development. The veteran spellers have honed sophisticated study methods, spending hours daily over many months in their attempts to master as much of the unabridged dictionary as possible.
Lori Anne? She likes to study while jumping on her trampoline, with her mother calling out words.
"She doesn't sit at a table for hours to study anything. I mean, she's 6," Sorina said with laugh. "She's still a 6-year-old and we want to allow her to be a 6-year-old."
But, at this pace, she'll be a spelling bee force for years to come, one of those youngsters who becomes a familiar face on the annual ESPN broadcasts.
Asked how she thinks she'll do this year, Lori Anne simply answered "great" and kept on hunting.
There was one question she was more than happy to answer: How does she win all those arguments with her parents?
"I argue and argue and argue," she said, "until their brain is spinning."