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The countdown is on

Eleuthera’s Johnathan Randall one of four competitors from Caribbean nations vying for 2018 Scripps National Spelling Bee title
National Spelling Bee champion Johnathan Randall is in the final days of preparation before he heads to the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., the week of May 28. He will be speller number 455 in a field of 519. TORRELL GLINTON

The countdown is on! It’s only 14 days before Johnathan Randall takes to the world stage of spelling competitions at the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Randall will be competing in a year when the competition will be super-sized because of a new wild-card program that has provided a path to the bee for children who didn’t qualify by conventional means and were willing to pay their own way.

Scripps was willing to allow the bee to nearly double in size, and that’s exactly what happened. There will be 519 spellers in this year’s bee, up from 291 last year. Randall, an eighth grade student at Central Eleuthera High School, is speller number 455.

As the days wind down, he says he’s excited.

“I hope to make it on stage, to at least know that The Bahamas made it that far,” he said.

Randall, who is sponsored by The Nassau Guardian into the competition, is one of four competitors from Caribbean nations in the competition this year along with Jamaicans Assana Thompson (speller #100) and Nathaniel Stone (speller #138), and Jah’Quane Graham (speller #50) from the United States Virgin Islands.

Randall and his mother, Stella, coaches and school Principal Marie Galanis have been going over words to get him prepared for the upcoming competition.

“I put a lot of hours towards bee preparation. A lot of free time spent on spelling words. It will soon be over, thank God,” he said.

The pre-teen will depart the country on May 25, to get into Washington for May 27, ahead of the May 28 start of the Scripps competition.

Galanis is also excited. She said Randall’s spelling bee accomplishment is a depiction of the school’s theme this year, which she said is ‘No excuses, just do it’.

“We are extremely proud of him,” said Galanis. “We feel that he did it. No excuses; he did it. So he really represents what we are trying to get all of our students to appreciate, and it’s that when at first you don’t succeed, you keep trying until you do.”

Randall won the national title in his third attempt, after having recorded a 13th place showing in 2016 and a seventh in 2017.

“What we are trying to have our students to appreciate is being students of first choice — to keep at it, persevere and be disciplined. So from [Randall] winning this year, it really depicts exactly what we are telling our students to do.”

While Randall and his mom will make the trip from the family, with his brothers and sister watching on television from Canada, the school principal is hoping that two persons may be able to make the trip from the school. She said they did not have the resources to fund a huge contingent, and they had to factor in the external examination period. Bahamas Junior Certificate (BJC) exams start May 28, the day the Scripps competition gets underway. Randall has had to defer taking the junior examinations to his ninth grade year as a result.

The wild-card program that comes into effect in Randall’s year also means some changes to the already packed bee week schedule. Now, there will be an extra day of spelling, with competitors taking the stage for three days instead of two. Previously, after the high-stakes written spelling and vocabulary test that largely determines the top 50 or so spellers who make the finals, competitors had the rest of the day to go sightseeing in Washington and blow off steam. Now, they’ll go straight from the test to the stage, where each speller will get one word the first day, and each remaining speller will get another word the second day.

This change doesn’t affect Randall much, because he says he wasn’t really interested in sightseeing. Rather, he said, he is looking forward to meeting the contestants from other nationalities, and speaking to them about how good The Bahamas is.

The wild card program was open to anyone who won a school-level spelling bee. Spellers who get wild cards have to pay a $750 entry fee and fund their own travel and lodging at the convention center outside Washington, where the bee will be held the week of May 28. Sponsors cover those costs for spellers who win their regional bees.

Of the 855 kids that applied for wild cards, 241 were accepted; spellers who had been to nationals before got top priority, with 39 recipients falling into that category; they were followed by spellers who were running out of eligibility. The bee is open to students in primary school through the eighth grade — and, after that, to spellers who got in their applications earliest.

Previously, spellers had to win at the regional level to gain entry. There are roughly 275 regions around the country, including a handful overseas.

The wild card program, known as “RSVBee”, was meant to provide a lifeline to spellers who happen to live in highly competitive regions.

As he prepares to head to Washington, Randall says he’s become a local “spellebrity” and says a lot of people have been trying to make friends with him. He finds the attention disconcerting.

“I don’t like unwanted attention. When I won [the national spelling bee] I felt very awkward. I was not used to that attention in Eleuthera; it’s a small audience, unlike on the national level.”

When he’s not working with his mom, coaches and principal, Randall enjoys fishing and eating his mom’s lobster fettuccine, which he says is the best.

Despite the fact that he’s a spelling champ, his favorite subject is math and he’s a smart kid to boot, having made the honors list year after year. He currently has a 3.28 grade point average.

Randall and the other 500-plus spellers started the journey to Washington, D.C., and the Scripps National Spelling Bee in the classroom with a study list and a dream.

Since 1925, when nine newspapers joined together to host a spelling bee, children have participated in school, local and regional bees with the singular hope of making it to the Scripps.

In The Bahamas, the Archdiocesan Spelling Contest is the oldest formal spelling bee; the inaugural contest was held in January 1967.

Randall is aiming for the title of Scripps Spelling Bee champion and the prize package that includes a $40,000 cash prize and Scripps National Spelling Bee engraved trophy. From Merriam-Webster, a $2,500 cash prize and a complete reference library; from Encyclopedia Britannica, $400 of reference works, including a 1768 Encyclopedia Britannica Replica set and a three-year membership to Britannica Online Premium; a trip to New York City to appear on “Live with Kelly and Ryan”; and a trip to Hollywood to appear on ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”. The champion’s school and sponsor receive a Scripps National Spelling Been engraved plaque.

In Scripps history, only two winners have come from Caribbean countries — Hugh Tosteson, from San Juan, Puerto Rico, who won in 1975; and Jamaica’s Jody-Anne Maxwell, who won in 1998.

Finalists receive a medal from the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Those who misspell in rounds four through six receive a $500 gift card and participants who misspell in rounds seven through to seventh place receive $2,000. The persons who attain sixth place receive $2,500; fifth place, $5,000; fourth place, $10,000; third place, $20,000; and second place, $30,000.

All spellers receive from Merriam-Webster a one-year subscription to Merriam-Webster Unabridged Online; from Jay Sugarman, the Samuel Lewis Sugarman Award, a 2018 United States Mint Proof Set presented in honor of his father; and from Encyclopedia Britannica, a one-year membership to Britannica Online Premium.

Upon his return to Eleuthera after claiming the national title, he was greeted on his home island with a Junkanoo rushout at the airport. As he prepares for the battle of his young life to date, the school held an assembly in his honor three weeks ago.




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