Second straight state title sends Saylor on to national Scripps Spelling Bee

Thursday, April 19, 2018 - 18:27
  • Joshua Saylor, a 7th grade student at Mirror Lake Middle School, won the Alaska State Spelling Bee for the second year in a row after correctly spelling the word “pompier” in the ninth round last Thursday, March 29 at the Sheraton Hotel in Anchorage. (Photo by Bill Roth of the Anchorage Daily News)
  • Ella Johnson from Sherrod Elementary in Palmer reads a book as she waits for her turn to spell during the Alaska State Spelling Bee in the Howard Rock Ballroom at the Sheraton Anchorage Hotel & Spa on Thursday, March 29. (Photo by Bill Roth of the Anchorage Daily News)
  • Mirror Lake Middle School student Joshua Saylor reacts to winning the Alaska State Spelling Bee for the second year in a row after correctly spelling the word “pompier” in the ninth round last Thursday, March 29. (Photo by Bill Roth of the Anchorage Daily News)

Seventh-grader Josh Saylor had never encountered the word “pompier” before he was challenged to spell it as the winning word in the Alaska State Spelling Bee last week.

But the Mirror Lake Middle School spelling whiz was undaunted. He requested the word origin (French) and confidently spelled P-O-M-P-I-E-R to secure the statewide spelling championship for the second year in a row.

“I would have spelled it wrong if I didn’t know it was a French word,” Saylor said demurely.

“Pompier” (pämpē•ā), which Merriam-Webster defines as “tritely or insipidly academic,” doesn’t appear in standard dictionaries. Searching “pompier” in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary elicits not only the definition but a presumptive offer for unlimited access to its unabridged dictionary.

“Love words? You must,” the promotional ad states. “You are looking for one that’s only in the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary.”

Saylor does love words. His dad, Mike Saylor, said Josh has loved words since he was a toddler. By 18 months he knew all the letter sounds, and by age 2 could spell short words like “mom” and “dad.”

“He took to learning really early on,” Mike Saylor said. “He would sit in the bathtub and put these foam letters on the wall to spell words.”

His yearning for learning is paying off again with his second expense-paid trip for two to the Scripps National Spelling Bee on May 27 in Washington, D.C., complete with $800 in spending money. The state spelling bee prize package also includes a subscription for that unfettered online access to Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary to study for the national contest.

Saylor said he will be better prepared for the national level this year than he was as a rookie last spring. A total of 291 spellers competed in the 2017 national bee, including two from Alaska (Saylor and one from the Interior), more from densely populated states and some from foreign countries.

Last year Saylor focused on the obscure words comprising the Scripps National Spelling Bee study list. The seventh-grade list for 2017-2018 is a minefield of potential stumpers, such as “pièce de résistance,” “uncoquettish” and “Methuselah.”

He did not browse the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary last year and was thus unprepared for the first round of competition, which consists of a written vocabulary test. Only the top 50 students to emerge from written vocab test and two semifinal rounds of spelling advance to the final round of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Saylor struck out in the second spelling round with the word “dissolution.”

He and his parents, Mike and Paige Saylor, were shocked to meet families who hire tutors and groom their children for years for the elite national bee.

“It was surprising how many of them had been there multiple times,” Mike Saylor said. “Some train for this their whole life.”

The winner appears on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and takes home a $40,000 prize. Saylor said he would splurge on a bassoon, which he plays in the Mirror Lake band in addition to the oboe.

But Saylor, who says math is his forte, has modest objectives for his second national spelling bee. He and his parents are hoping this time they get into the White House and maybe meet the president, a privilege that ordinarily must be arranged three months in advance via a senator from their home state.

They emailed a request to Sen. Lisa Murkowski the night Saylor won the Alaska State Spelling Bee.

As for the mind-boggling selection of obscure spelling words that could be culled from the unabridged dictionary and oust him from the national bee, Saylor remains undaunted.

“Everybody’s eyes are on me, and I don’t know if I’m going to spell the word correctly so there’s a bit of pressure on me,” he acknowledged. “It’s something I want to win every time, but my goal is just to do better than I did last year.”

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