National Spelling Bee favorites are friendly rivals By JOSEPH WHITE, Associated Press Writer
Wed May 28, 7:50 PM ET
WASHINGTON - Tia Thomas flipped through her note cards and said: "OK, I'm going to stump you."
"Loucheux," she said with a sly smile.
Matthew Evans was unfazed by the word that describes a Native American tribe: "L-o-u-c-h-e-u-x."
Tia threw her note cards on the table and folded her arms.
"And that was supposed to be one that stumped me!" Matthew said with a hint of bravado.
The pair of home-schooled 13-year-olds are the veterans of this week's Scripps National Spelling Bee, the only competitors who have made it this far four times before. They're among the favorites to win: The only returning speller who finished ahead of Tia last year is Matthew.
Their friendly rivalry has reached its fifth and final year as they age out of the competition.
"Actually, he is the person that I'm most anxious to beat this year," said Tia, from Coarsegold, Calif. "I really want to win this year."
"That would be a little disappointing," said Matthew, from Albuquerque, N.M. "But if she wins, that means she probably prepared better than me."
Tia and Matthew met Wednesday at the eighth-floor lobby of the posh downtown hotel that is hosting the 81st edition of the competition. The bee begins in earnest Thursday with a record 288 spellers competing in the oral preliminary round and concludes Friday night with a prime-time finish on ABC.
Should either Tia or Matthew win, the other will deserve a big thank you. They have been comparing notes via instant messaging every Friday night in the months leading up to the bee. Their two families went out to dinner Tuesday night, a meal that was flush with a very rich vocabulary.
"There's definitely some pressure involved when the stakes are higher," said Tia's mother, Pamela Thomas. "It's her last year and Matthew's last year, and they've been friends for a long time and they both want to win. They're both extremely competitive."
Neither Matthew nor Tia made it out of the preliminary round their first two years, but in 2006 both decided to apply themselves more. Matthew has since finished 14th and sixth, while Tia has placed 22nd and eighth.
Since last year, Matthew has combed the dictionary and made a list of 30,000 of the toughest words. Neatly typed, they fill four 2-inch-thick binders. He also has an eight-page list of what he calls "the trickiest homonyms of the dictionary."
It's a long way from when Matthew started asking about the letters on his cereal bowl at the age of 18 months.
"If there's anything I've learned working with Matthew," Helen Evans said, "is that there's a word for everything."
"Defenestration," chimed in Matthew. "It means the act of throwing someone out of a window."
"There's actually a word for that!" his mother said. "Doesn't that kind of blow you away?"
In contrast to Matthew's neat notebooks, Tia arrived for their meeting Wednesday with a purple composition book full of doodles and handwritten words, although she did have some typed pages as well.
They enjoyed the friendly banter — the spelling bee version of trash talk? — as they called out random words to each other ("jeofail," "homonomous," "Hodja"), with Tia shooting her arms skyward whenever she spelled a word correctly.
The pressure young competitors face concerns some bee watchers, particularly when it comes from demanding parents. The mothers of Tia and Matthew both spoke about the balancing act involved in letting a prodigy go as far as he or she can — without pushing too hard.
"You do have to encourage them, and sometimes it may seem like you're kind of pushing them," Pamela Thomas said. "But, yeah, you don't want them to hate you, or you don't want to pressure them too much because they are children."
Helen Evans said she's seen competitors that were obviously feeling the strain of family pressure. Matthew said last year he sat on stage next to a speller who wanted to get eliminated as soon as possible.
"She said she'd rather be at home with her friends than there," Matthew said.
Matthew and Tia, as much as they want to win, will be relieved when the week is over.
"I'm looking forward to the bee, and I'm excited, and I'm trying to do all this last-minute studying," Matthew said. "But I'm also, to be honest, kind of looking forward to this summer when I can take a break and do non-spelling stuff."
Said Tia: "I'm going to read and watch videos all day for a week after school's over."
Go homeschoolers!!! Good luck to them both!