WASHINGTON – WASHINGTON (AP) — Maple leafs are few and far between at this year's Scripps National Spelling Bee.
Because of the recession, Canada sent only one representative instead of the usual contingent of 20 or so. The hopes of the entire nation will rest on 11-year-old Laura Newcombe of Toronto when the spellers take the stage for the first oral rounds on Thursday.
"It was really just a matter of economics," said Collene Ferguson, who works with the Canadian national bee. "Hopefully, it's just a one-time situation."
For years, it has seemed inevitable that a Canadian will one day win the bee. The country often sends a strong group of contenders, and it's become a familiar sight to see entire rows of families and friends waving tiny red and white flags in the audience in support of their spellers. Nate Gartke of Alberta was the last Canadian to come close to taking the title, finishing second in 2007.
But the sponsors of the 21 regional bees couldn't afford to send their spellers both to Ottawa for a week for the Canadian bee and then to Washington for yet another week for the Scripps Bee, so they decided to send only the Canadian champion to the U.S. bee.
"We wanted to save the program altogether," Ferguson said, "and in order to put it on at all we had to make some changes because the funding wasn't there. I'm sure some of the kids are disappointed, but they had a great time in their home country."
With only one Canadian, the number of spellers in Washington this year is 273, down from last year's record 293. Still, there's very much an international flavor, with representatives from South Korea, Japan, New Zealand, Jamaica, Ghana, China, the Bahamas and the Department of Defense Dependents Schools in Europe.
THE BEE BEGINS: The actual bee began Wednesday morning with an exercise far removed from the glamour of the ESPN and ABC broadcasts that will draw millions of viewers on Friday.
The spellers ventured to a room in the basement of the official hotel to take a 50-word test, spelling prerecorded words on a keyboard. Only 25 of the words actually count, but they don't know which ones. The results will be combined with Thursday's onstage rounds to determine who makes the semifinals.
The spellers could take the test anytime between 7:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Upon completion, the speller was under strict orders not to tell anyone — even parents — the words on the test because there were others who had yet to take it. Spilling the beans is grounds for disqualification.
Anxious parents waited outside the testing room — near a big sign that read "QUIET PLEASE" — for their sons and daughters to emerge.
"It was a bit harder than I thought, maybe, but it was still fun," said 12-year-old Tommy Arnold of Muncie, Ind., a first-time participant. "I think I did OK."
ANOTHER NEUROSURGEON?: It's a well-documented and curious fact that the last two National Spelling Bee champions have been Indian-Americans who want to grow up to be neurosurgeons.
Will it happen again this year? Sure enough, two of the three returning finalists from last year are Indian-Americans, but they have different occupational goals. Neetu Chandak of Seneca Falls, N.Y., wants to be an architect and interior designer, while Anamika Veeramani of North Royalton, Ohio, wants to be a cardiovascular surgeon.
Neetu finished tied for eighth last year, while Anamika tied for fifth.
Seven of the last 11 winners have been Indian-Americans. Many were inspired by 1999 champion Nupur Lala, who was featured in the documentary "Spellbound" and is now doing research in neuroscience at MIT.
CHANGING TASTES: Pizza is the favorite food among the 273 spellers, hardly a surprise.
But No. 2? Believe it or not, it's sushi.
Hamburgers, long a traditional favorite, doesn't even make the top five. Pasta is third, followed by chocolate and steak.
The bee's survey also lists "Avatar" as the spellers' favorite movie, basketball as their favorite sport, math as their favorite school subject, physician as their top career ambition and the Harry Potter series as their favorite fiction books. More than a third — 97 — can play the piano, and English is not the first language of 26 of the spellers.
Boys outnumber girls 144-129. Also, 68 percent of the spellers go to public school. Eleven percent are home-schooled.
NAME THAT VOLCANO: As it turns out, there is indeed a word that can stump the reigning National Spelling Bee champ.
Kavya Shivashankar, who is back this year to support her younger sister, didn't have a clue when asked to spell Eyjafjallajokull, the volcano that has been spewing ash in Iceland.
"No," she said, laughing. "I can spell the capital of Iceland, but I think a lot of people here can do that."
Only a champion speller could make Reykjavik sound easy.