Speller’s journey shows how tough national bee has become

Shaheer Imam never thought it would take so long to get back to the National Spelling Bee.

The 13-year-old from Catonsville, Maryland, made his first appearance during Barack Obama’s first term as president. Shaheer was just eight years old, and he spelled “capricious” and “quinzaine” correctly on stage.

The following year, he went to a new school that didn’t participate in the Scripps bee program. In 5th grade, he was home-schooled and lost a regional bee for home-schoolers — to his older sister. In 6th grade he won his school and finished second at his regional bee. In 7th grade he finished third at regionals.

This year, he finally made it back by winning his regional bee over a friend from school and his 9-year-old brother. On Tuesday morning, he took his place among 290 other spellers at a convention center outside Washington as the 90th Scripps National Spelling Bee began with a written spelling and vocabulary test.

In a year when the bee is welcoming its youngest-ever participant, 6-year-old Edith Fuller, Shaheer is setting a more unusual record, for the longest gap — five years — between appearances. His frustrating wait shows just how tough it can be to emerge from a field of 11 million spellers in the U.S. and abroad.

“Every year I would make the goal that I would come back and I would try to come as far as I could. If it didn’t happen, then I would say that next year I will improve more upon my vocabulary…

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