SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) — This year marks the 90th year of one of America’s iconic competitions: the Scripps National Spelling Bee. KPIX and KCBS Radio are teaming up for the fourth year in a row to sponsor the CBS Bay Area Spelling Bee in KPIX studios on March 18.
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Dan Greenblatt won the Scripps National Spelling Bee as a Virginia 8th grader in 1984.
He remembered, “I kind of freaked out, shouting, ‘I don’t believe this.'”
And Wendy Lai — then Wendy Guey — was a 12-year-old from Florida when she took the trophy in 1996.
“I just remember that I was really nervous. It’s an intense competition,” she recalled.
And both San Francisco residents remember their winning word.
Greenblatt’s was “luge.”
Lai’s was “vivisepulchre,” which means “buried alive.”
Today, Greenblatt is a software engineer and voice actor. Lai is a Berkeley middle-school teacher.
Greenblatt remembered how he studied.READ MORE: COVID: Highly-Contagious Delta Variant Has Some Parents Rethinking Back-To-School Plans
“My Mom would just do the words over and over and, about two weeks before the national bee, I told my mom, ‘That’s it. I’m done. I can’t do it anymore. If I don’t know it by now, I’m not going to know it,'” he mused.
Lai shared what fueled her determination.
“I resolved that I was going to study for the bee and try to do my best so I could win this opportunity to go to (Washington) DC,” she smiled.
Both said they initially enjoyed the sudden fame that came with their trophy, like national TV appearances on Good Morning America and The Tonight Show.
There were also other perks.
Lai said, “One of the really random highlights was going to a Chinese restaurant afterwards with my parents and the owner saying, ‘Hey I saw you on TV. You won the national spelling bee! Ten percent off the bill!'”
But both former spelling champions were glad the notoriety wore off. It got overwhelming.
“You get the phone calls from the media,” said Greenblatt. “You get people sending you random letters in the mail. You get people finding your parents’ phone number in the phone book and calling you and it’s kind of like, after awhile — ‘Enough!'”
Looking back, they’re thankful for what they learned — and not just by studying words.
“That was also one of the really big lessons that I took away, was just being able to exhibit grace under pressure,” Lai concluded.MORE NEWS: COVID: Outbreak at 3 Contra Costa Jails Sickens Nearly 100 Inmates and Staff
If they competed today, Greenblatt and Lai agree the contest has got so tough, they do not think they would get very far.