In her first trip to the Scripps National Spelling Bee last week, Komarek School seventh-grader Marly Santora missed appearing in the nationally televised semifinals by a whisker.
But the 12-year-old North Riverside resident did get a taste of the limelight last week, stepping onto the stage in the ballroom of the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Md., twice during the preliminary rounds of the competition and correctly spelling both words thrown at her.
For the record, those words were digitalis (a genus of plants) and ciconine (“of, relating to, or resembling the storks,” according to Webster’s dictionary).
“I was pretty nervous,” said Marly, who nonetheless looked calm and collected on stage, with a paper label bearing her full name “Marlene” and her competitor number, 59, looped around her neck by a string.
Asking the judge for a definition of digitalis, she confidently spelled the word and walked back to her seat with a slight smile of satisfaction on her face.
“I know I’d studied that one,” said Marly, back in class with mere spelling mortals on Monday afternoon.
The preliminary rounds weren’t televised nationally, but they were broadcast live online on ESPN3, whose mother station carried the semifinals and finals coast to coast.
On the morning of June 1, students at Komarek School got a glimpse of their schoolmate on the sometimes choppy online video of her preliminary round appearance.
“All of the school computers were logged in,” said Komarek District 94 Superintendent Neil Pellicci.
But when all of the contestants gathered in the ballroom that afternoon to hear who had made it to the semifinals, Marly came up just short. The critical part of the preliminary round was a written test given the day before.
All 275 contestants and their families sat in on the 25-word exam, which included a couple of real doozies, including “pinealectomy” and “hukilau.” Marly spelled 21 of the 25 words correctly, giving her a final score of 27 points.
In 2010, that would have been good enough to advance to the semifinal round, but not this year – she needed 29.
Marly’s father, Gerry, said that glancing afterward at her worksheet where Marly worked out spellings for the written test, she had spelled three of the four words she missed correctly but went with another spelling.
“We’re very proud of her,” said Gerry Santora. “For her first trip there, she did great. She had a blast.”
For Marly the most memorable moment was being on the stage where the winner would eventually be crowned.
“I’ve seen it so many times,” she said. “And you don’t notice the cameras that much.”
Gerry Santora, who accompanied Marly during the week, along with his wife, Linda, was impressed by the level of competition, particularly in the later rounds. This year’s winner was Sukanya Roy of Wilkes-Barre, Penn. The winning word: cymotrichous.
“The level of competition this year was just tremendous,” said Santora. “With these kids it’s not just rote memorization. They really know the etymologies.”
Marly was sponsored by ComEd, which covered all expenses for Marly and her family during the trip to the Washington, D.C. area for the competition.
She advanced to the National Spelling Bee by winning the regional bee on Feb. 17 at Mannheim School in Melrose Park.