WASHINGTON – Thomas North sounded a little groggy Tuesday morning, having experienced what he called a "pretty erratic" sleep pattern during his first 24 hours in the United States. Who could blame him? Of the record 288 competitors in this year's Scripps National Spelling Bee, no one traveled farther than the 13-year-old boy from Hamilton, New Zealand.
"We're still feeling the effects a little," said his mother, Katherine Foulkes, who accompanied Thomas for the 22-hour trip.
Thomas wasn't alone. Jiwon Seo, 11, flew in from South Korea with her parents and sister. Maria Isabel Kubabom, 13, arrived from Ghana with her mother, having spent an unscheduled night in New York along the way because luggage problems caused them to miss their connecting flight.
"The luggage was soooooo slow. It was a welcome to your country," Maria Isabel's mother, Marian Tadefa-Kubabom, said with a laugh.
The 81st bee will have more international flavor than ever. South Korea and Ghana are represented for the first time, joining spellers from Canada, Jamaica, Germany, the Bahamas and New Zealand — plus the U.S. territories of Guam, Puerto Rico and American Samoa.
All will compete in the preliminary round Thursday morning, with the top spellers moving to the nationally televised elimination rounds later Thursday and Friday. For the third consecutive year, the champion will be crowned in prime time on ABC.
International competitors have been part of the bee for three decades, and two winners have come from outside the 50 states: Hugh Tosteson of Puerto Rico in 1975 and Jody-Anne Maxwell of Jamaica in 1998. Canada's Nate Gartke was last year's runner-up.
One of the lasting memories from last year's bee was the thick Kiwi accent of New Zealand's Kate Weir, who baffled judges several times with her pronunciations of certain letters. Even after listening to a replay, the judges couldn't decide whether she was saying "g" or "j."
Foulkes can only hope her son isn't similarly misunderstood.
"Kate has a particularly southern New Zealand drawl," Foulkes said. "Thomas, I think, is a little less Kiwi."
Thomas' accent isn't his biggest concern. He's had to relearn some basic English rules because American spellings of certain words are different from the norm back home ("color" instead of "colour"). He recently started spelling the American way in his homework assignments, even if it threw off his teachers.
"I think they know I'm doing it on purpose," Thomas said.
Competitors are welcome from any country as long as there is an English-speaking newspaper or a similar organization willing to sponsor a local bee. Jiwon won the contest in South Korea sponsored by Yoon's English Academy in Seoul.
Jiwon began an interview by saying "I can't speak English very well," but it soon became clear she was being modest. She studied the language in school from an early age and enjoys spotting new words and spelling them in her notebook.
Asked if she faced a disadvantage in competing against English-proficient Americans, she said: "A little bit. But the spelling bee, the words aren't used much, so that's not a big disadvantage."
Sure enough, recent winning words have included "appoggiatura," "Ursprache" and "serrefine" — hardly the stuff of routine conversation.
Thomas' mother said her son prepared by studying perhaps a half-hour to an hour per day, with a 90-minute session with a tutor once a week. That pales in comparison with favorites such as New Mexico's 13-year-old whiz Matthew Evans, who has been practicing some four hours daily with his own list of some 30,000 tough words.
"It's going to be difficult," Foulkes said. "It's going to be a whole few gears higher than what we've done."