Cedarville speller eliminated from National Spelling Bee amid tech glitches

Sophia Lopez made it to the final 20 in the National Spelling Bee, lost on “pomaceous”

Cedarville Middle School’s star speller Sophia Lopez was eliminated from the Scripps National Spelling Bee on Sunday night when technological glitches created an unprecedented hurdle.

This is the first year when most of the national bee is being done via online videoconferencing. The preliminaries and quarterfinals went smoothly as Sophia, 13, spelled from her home like the rest of the 209 contestants, advancing to the top 30. But Sunday’s semifinals were a technological mess for her.

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Well before Sunday’s semifinals were to begin with Round 7 on ESPN2, Sophia’s Bee-provided laptop wouldn’t work, according to Sophia’s mother, Mary. They agreed on a work-around with Bee officials, then after 7 p.m., the family’s internet connection dropped due to a problem in their neighborhood.

The Bee has a third-party proctor in the room with each speller to certify that they are following the rules. The Lopez family worked with the proctor and Bee officials, who moved Sophia back to the final spot in Round 7 to give her time, and told her to use a cell phone and hotspot to connect via video.

When her turn came up, Spelling Bee judge Mary Brooks tried to put Sophia at ease.

“There isn’t a single person that’s been involved in this 2021 Bee who hasn’t been near tears over technology and the internet,” Brooks said. “I understand you’ve had some issues tonight, so we just want to tell you we’re pulling for you, and you’ve done a great job of being persistent and patient.”

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Sophia was given the word “yamamai,” which is a large Japanese silkworm, and she quickly got it right. ESPN analyst Paul Loeffler, a former Bee finalist, immediately praised her resilience, saying she handled a tough situation “perfectly.”

“It was a lot harder,” Sophia said. “I had my proctor holding up the cell phone and it was a little bit crazy for the semifinals. There were notifications (popping up) on the phone. It was hard to focus at times … probably harder than it should have been.”

That put Sophia in the final 20 spellers for Round 8′s word-meaning questions. She was asked whether the word pomaceous relates to a ceremonial display, a fragrant hair dressing or apples. With 30 seconds to respond, she asked Bee pronouncer Jacques Bailly to repeat the options, and could be seen leaning in closer to her phone screen to read those options.

When she guessed “a fragrant hair dressing,” the dreaded bell sounded. Sophia Lopez put her hands to her face, and was gracious in response, thanking Brooks for her kind words.

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“I was familiar with yamamai because I had studied it recently. But pomaceous; I had never heard it,” Sophia said Monday. “I was distracted and the words were really small on the screen so I couldn’t see it very well. I didn’t have a lot of time to think after I had (the options) repeated. That was probably one of the reasons why I didn’t choose the smartest answer.”

As Sophia finished tied for 16th, ESPN’s Loeffler talked about the technological issues playing a part.

“You can’t help but wonder — would it have been different if she didn’t have the hang-ups that she had to fight through that others didn’t,” he said.

Michael Durnil, the spelling bee’s executive director, said the organization did all it could to make sure Sophia could compete. He said Bee officials acknowledged the stress of this case, and said Sophia handled the situation extremely well. But he said there are no appeals at this level of competition.

“We have a simultaneous review process (where) a series of judges are playing back the feed, making real-time decisions and verifying the judges’ calls,” Durnil said. “Should the the judges feel a reinstatement is called for, they’ll make that call, but that did not happen in this case.”

Sophia said she hopes to compete again in her final year of eligibility in 2022, and hopes it’s not in an online format. She said she thinks she has “a good shot” at making the national bee for the third time. Asked what she had learned, she showed wisdom beyond her years.

“You just kind of have to go with the flow, I guess, when things end up weird,” she said.

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