South Dakota spelling champ takes aim after previous loss

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VERMILLION, S.D. (AP) — Owen Dudley will never forget the word "potash," a seemingly basic noun that describes a form of potassium used to improve soil.

That's the word that knocked Dudley out of last year's regional spelling bee and prevented him from reaching the South Dakota state competition. Ever since then, the 14-year-old from Vermillion has worked to make sure he won't get fooled again.

"At first it was just anger," says Dudley of his miscue. "But it turned into motivation."

The approach worked wonders for the eighth-grader, who won the state title last month in Vermillion and will represent South Dakota at the Scripps National Spelling Bee on May 27-28 in the Washington D.C. area, the Argus Leader ( ) reported.

Unlike many of his competitors, Dudley is new to the spelling bee world, having entered his first competition last year. His strength lies in his ability to study a list of words and visualize the structure and arrangement of those letters in his mind.

"He's a wonderful memorizer," says his mother, Judy Zwolak. "It's astonishing how well he can memorize things when he focuses and gets into that zone."

As it turns out, "potash" was one of the words Dudley didn't prepare for last year, so the memorization approach isn't foolproof. He is learning more about spelling bee strategy and expanding his repertoire, focusing on etymology to understand the origin of words and how root languages provide clues.

His championship word in this year's regional bee was "frabjous," a term for joy coined by Lewis Carroll in the Jabberwocky poem from "Through the Looking Glass." Dudley navigated that word by using the same suffix as fabulous or mysterious.

The success of that strategy impressed John Dudley, Owen's father, the associate dean of arts and sciences at the University of South Dakota.

"I'm not that great of a speller," John admits. "I teach literature, not grammar, so I don't think he got it from me. He seems to be naturally good at this, and finding success has motivated him to study more and take it seriously."

The state bee was held on the USD campus, where Dudley survived missing the word "besotted" when other competitors were also tripped up. Finally, he outdueled Vermillion fifth-grader Hari Kadarkaraisamy by nailing the word "nondescript," which was one of the least-challenging tests he faced.

"I was tempted to say into the microphone, 'Forget it. Give me a hard one,'" says Dudley with a smile. "But that probably wouldn't have been a good idea."


There were 11 million students (up through eighth grade) at the start of this year's spelling bee process, of which 279 advanced to nationals. Of those, one is from South Dakota.

So it's not surprising that the Mount Rushmore State doesn't typically make a splash in this competition, which started in 1925 but has become more prominent recently with prime-time ESPN coverage.

But it does happen. Nicholas Truelson is proof.

The homeschooled Sioux Falls resident hit the national spotlight as an eighth-grader in 2004, when he made the championship round on ESPN and finished third after getting tripped up on the word "parrhesia." He finished sixth the previous year and 59th in 2002.

Truelson, who has a form of autism known as Asberger's Syndrome, enjoyed a memorable run of "academic bowl" successes from 2002-07 after showing early promise in areas of chess, science, math and spelling. His ability to absorb, process and retain information was mind-boggling.

"He spelled his first word at age 2," said his father, Nels, a local attorney who also serves as moderator at regional spelling bees. "He saw an 'exit' sign in a restaurant and came home and spelled out 'exit' with dominoes. It started by accident, but we knew he was special."

After getting eliminated on the word "bombycine" and finishing sixth in the nation as a seventh-grader, Nicholas was one of the favorites in 2004. His rise to the final three competitors and the battle that followed is captured in the book "American Bee" by James Maguire, who writes that Truelson "appears to lapse into a trancelike state when he spells, conjuring the letters like an ancient blind oracle."

Nicholas was never comfortable with the spotlight and grew disillusioned with some of the online nastiness he encountered because of his appearance and onstage mannerisms. He stopped doing academic competitions and has no interest in speaking to the media.

But the 25-year-old can take pride in the fact that, for a few shining moments, he thrust South Dakota into the heart of the National Spelling Bee phenomenon and did so with poise and pride.

"There's an egalitarian aspect to the event that draws you to it," said Nels. "It's not reserved for kids from East Coast prep schools and it doesn't play favorites. If you work hard, you can be from the plains of South Dakota and still be part of something special."


Owen Dudley doesn't have near the experience that Truelson amassed and doesn't have the benefit of full-time coaching, like some competitors. But he's approaching his big moment with confidence.

One of his strengths is his ability to take the stage and sort through his word without getting rattled, despite all eyes being upon him.

"One time I exhaled into the microphone, and I think everyone heard it," he says. "That was kind of embarrassing."

As the national bee approaches and the workload starts to build, his sense of humor remains intact.

When asked for his favorite subject in school, Owen said that it used to be "getting on the bus." Now the straight-A student likes history because he gets to spell out long historical names such as Antonio López de Santa Anna and Barón de Montesquieu.

That natural fascination makes the process worthwhile, no matter how things turn out.

"Spelling is a lost art in a lot of ways, with the spellcheck option and a general decline in literacy," said John, who has a doctorate in English from Tulane University. "But behind the spelling is the history of language, and he'll always have that knowledge to build upon."

Owen will be joined by his parents and older sister, Sophi, at the national bee, which includes a full week of festivities and plenty of time for sightseeing in the nation's Capitol.

If he's feeling the pressure, it didn't seem to show when he was asked about how special it would be to qualify for the final round of spellers on ESPN.

"It wouldn't be as cool as winning," he said. "But it would still be pretty darn cool."


Information from: Argus Leader,

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