Cheers rang through the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland on Friday night as seventh-grader Gabriela Rodriguez correctly spelled the word “brouhaha” to become the winner of the 13th annual Prince George’s County Spelling Bee.
“I am very elated, very excited,” said Gabriela, a home-schooled student in the Accokeek Center for Homeschooling Support.
Gabriela won in the 28th round of the competition, which lasted four hours and was hosted by The Gazette-Star.
Gabriela’s father, Rafael Rodriguez, said the last rounds were nerve-racking.
“All the time you’re wondering, ‘Who’s going to win?’” he said. “You get to the point where you’re like, ‘Please let somebody win.’”
“In 13 years, this is the longest spelling bee that we have had by far, and that is a testament to their preparation,” said moderator Dave Zahren, who has hosted the event since its inception.
The competition began with 25 competitors, but as the word difficulty increased, most were eliminated. By the end of the 11th round, only six remained.
As the bee progressed, Gabriela was asked to spell words like “tokamak,” “acerbation” and “fantoccini.”
Under the rules of the spelling bee, once only one competitor remained, they would have to spell one last word in a solo round to win the championship; if they missed it, all the competitors from the previous round would be brought back.
Six times, it came down to one competitor; when they missed the word, the other five were brought out and the cycle began again.
Gabriela twice missed her final word, but she smiled when Zahren asked her to spell “flabbergast” in the 25th round.
“I was flabbergasted by flabbergast,” Gabriela said. “I was surprised that at the end they had all of those easier words that I actually knew.”
By the end of that round, only Gabriela and eighth-grader Hannah Thomas of Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Beltsville, champion of the 2012 county spelling bee, remained.
Runner-up Hannah said some of the obscure words taken from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary were challenging.
“I had never seen or heard of some of those before,” she said.
Gabriela said that since winning her home-school co-op’s spelling bee in December, she has been practicing five to six hours per week.
“My mom asked me to spell a lot of words, and my brother and sister helped me a lot. Without them, I would have done a lot worse,” Gabriela said.
Gabriela’s mother, Sylvia Rodriguez, who is also Gabriela’s home-school teacher and spelling bee coach, said Gabriela is an avid reader. Although Spanish is her parents’ native language, Gabriela is fluent in English as well, which her mother said was an advantage.
“She’s bilingual, so I think that helped a little bit to figure out some words,” Sylvia Rodriguez said.
The prizes for winning the spelling bee include a new laptop, a dictionary, a savings bond, a $500 spending spree courtesy of the Mall at Prince Georges and several sponsors’ gifts. The winner also gets hotel and transportation paid to attend the Scripps National Spelling Bee, held May 28-30 at National Harbor.
Zahren said that in the 88-year history of the national spelling bee, there has never been a winner from Prince George’s County.
“I think this is our year,” Zahren said.