Chesterfield 7th-grader becomes three-time St. Louis spelling bee champion

LEBANON • Alice Liu’s bright smile coruscated from the stage after she won the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Spelling Bee by correctly spelling the verb that means “sparkled.”

Alice, 12, pumped her fists and held up the large trophy Saturday after her third consecutive win. She will travel in May to compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington.

Last year at the national bee, the Chesterfield seventh-grader tied for 34th in a field of more than 500 competitors. She tied for 12th in 2017.

Colette Giezentanner of Robert H. Sperreng Middle School in Sappington came in second at the local finals, and Sophia “Sassy” Saleeby of Ladue Middle School finished third in the 33rd annual competition held at McKendree University.

“I was really nervous because both of the other contestants were so good and I thought we had an equal chance at winning,” said Alice, who attends Crestview Middle School in Ballwin.

Her mother, Ping Wang, said she tells Alice that she is competing against the dictionary and not the other students. “It’s really a game” is the family motto, according to her father, Fenglong Liu. Alice practices daily with lists of words to try to get exposed to as many as she can. She said she was excited for her third national bee and just needed to remind herself to speak slowly when spelling.

The 39 competitors in the oral competition were whittled from 60,000 students around the St. Louis region who participated in spelling bees at their schools. The finalists scored highest on a written test given March 9 for more than 250 students who won the bees at their schools.

Round four on Saturday was particularly brutal — knocking out 16 spellers with words such as marjoram, nouveau, kaleidoscope, quetzal and Confucian.

Kenan Strahm of Maryville Christian School tripped up on “dragoman,” a word for a Persian interpreter, while providing the tense competition with one of its few lighter moments. “What?” Kenan asked incredulously when he first heard the word, prompting laughter from the audience of family members.

Indira Nair, who has been judging the bee for 29 years, told Kenan that “dragoman” originated in middle English and then worked its way through French, Italian, Greek and Arabic, “so it’s a confusing word.”

After Kenan missed the word, he said he had studied it but just drew a blank .

“I was just so confused, I got nervous,” he said.

Sean Ward, an eighth-grader at Valley Park Middle School, said he didn’t win his school’s spelling bee last year but made it to the final eight contestants on Saturday with little practice. “I studied on the way up here,” he said.

Sean was eliminated when he spelled the word “marmoreal” (made of marble) as “marmorial.”

“I feel sad when they miss by one little letter,” Nair said. “They’ll never forget that word, will they?”