Shaheer Imam never thought it would take so long to get back to the National Spelling Bee.
The 13-year-old from Catonsville, Maryland, made his first appearance during Barack Obama's first term as president. Shaheer was just eight years old, and he spelled "capricious" and "quinzaine" correctly on stage.
The following year, he went to a new school that didn't participate in the Scripps bee program. In 5th grade, he was home-schooled and lost a regional bee for home-schoolers — to his older sister. In 6th grade he won his school and finished second at his regional bee. In 7th grade he finished third at regionals.
This year, he finally made it back by winning his regional bee over a friend from school and his 9-year-old brother. On Tuesday morning, he took his place among 290 other spellers at a convention center outside Washington as the 90th Scripps National Spelling Bee began with a written spelling and vocabulary test.
In a year when the bee is welcoming its youngest-ever participant, 6-year-old Edith Fuller, Shaheer is setting a more unusual record, for the longest gap — five years — between appearances. His frustrating wait shows just how tough it can be to emerge from a field of 11 million spellers in the U.S. and abroad.
"Every year I would make the goal that I would come back and I would try to come as far as I could. If it didn't happen, then I would say that next year I will improve more upon my vocabulary and then I would make it back," Shaheer said. "But each year, it didn't happen. I came really close sometimes."
Much has changed since Shaheer's previous appearance in 2012. The bee added vocabulary to the written test, forcing spellers for the first time to learn the definitions of words, although the top spellers had been doing that for years. Then the secretive Scripps word team started struggling to dig out words tough enough to identify a single champion. The bee has ended in a tie for three consecutive years.
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Last year, the bee made the championship rounds longer and the words tougher, but it still ended with two spellers sharing the title. This year, the bee added a second written and vocabulary test that the remaining spellers will take before the prime time finals on Thursday. The results will be used only if necessary to break a tie. Not everyone is happy about the latest change.
"It might need a couple tweaks. I don't think there should be vocabulary in it," said Jairam Hathwar, last year's co-champion.
Jairam believes the championship words will be difficult enough this year that the test won't be needed. Then again, that was the point of last year's changes.
"I like co-champions," he said. "It gives a lot of hope for people."
Tuesday was all about surviving the written test, perhaps the most nerve-wracking part of the bee. Competitors were asked to spell 12 words and identify the definitions of 14 more. After turning in their test sheets, they streamed out of the ballroom where the bee is held and began frantically Googling the answers. They lamented their misses and gossiped about what score might be "the cutoff" for making the top 50. Perfect scores on the test are rare, and even two of the favorites, Siyona Mishra and Shourav Dasari, admitted to getting a few vocabulary words wrong.
On Wednesday, all 291 spellers will get an opportunity to spell two words on stage, and those who miss will hear the dreaded bell that signals elimination. Among those who survive, the written test will determine who advances to the final day of competition on Thursday.
Six-year-old Edith, meanwhile, was treated like a celebrity as she walked the halls outside the ballroom. The home-schooled kindergartener from Tulsa, Oklahoma, is the third 6-year-old to make it to the bee since 2012, but she's 5 months younger than the previous record-holder, and she was just 5 when she qualified. The previous 6-year-olds did not get past the preliminary rounds and have not returned to the bee.
Naysa Modi, a veteran at age 11 who's already making her third appearance in the bee, stopped Edith and asked her to pose for a picture.
"You're going to do really good," Naysa said.