Nearly 60 students participated in the 2016 Gallatin County Spelling Bee on Saturday, and the final five battled for six rounds before a winner was declared.
The spellers gathered in the Belgrade High School auditorium for the competition. Gallatin County Superintendent of Schools Laura Axtman presided as master of ceremonies and Chrysti Smith, host of radio show “Chrysti the Wordsmith,” acted as pronouncer. Former Gallatin County Superintendent and Belgrade School Board trustee Mary Elle Fitzgerald, Gallatin County Commissioner Joe Skinner and Gallatin County Undersheriff Dan Springer were judges.
One by one, competitors stepped up to the microphone to tackle increasingly obscure vocabulary words. Within the first two rounds, many spellers exited the stage after being bested by the likes of “hearth,” “ewe” and “academy.”
As the competition wore on, words of foreign origins such as “sitzmark,” “wikiwiki” and “nachtmusik” forced spellers to sink or swim.
“The really good spellers can figure a word out even if they’ve never heard it before,” said Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald said she’s been involved in the bee in some way or another for about 35 years. Throughout the decades, she said she’s seen all kinds of spelling tricks.
“Some of them pretend to write a word out of their hand because they can’t have a paper and pen, some of them go like this,” she said, bouncing up and down to a steady beat.
The top spellers in Saturday’s bee didn’t seem to need any tricks, though.
After eight rounds, only five spellers remained: Garrett Ruhl of Gallatin Valley Home Educators, Ryan Christensen of Anderson School, Jackson Long of Chief Joseph Middle School, Eli Swets of Manhattan Christian School and Alexa Lewis, another home-schooler.
To win the bee, a speller needs to be the only one to correctly spell a word in a round, then spell one extra word correctly.
The finalists spelled off for numerous rounds before seventh grader Ryan Christensen emerged as the victor, rhythmically pounding out his winning words, “corpuscle and “Eocene,” in a loud, clear voice.
Seventh grader Alexa Lewis came in second and sixth grader Jackson Long placed third. Eighth graders Garret Ruhl and Eli Swets were first and second alternates, respectively.
The winner’s father, Jon Christensen, said it was “just awesome” to see his son take the top prize in the bee.
“Some of that was because we prepared but a lot of it was just natural spelling ability,” he said. “He’s a very methodical person.”
His son had a different story, though.
“I’m kind of feeling lucky,” Christensen said. “I was thinking I would end up somewhere in the fiftieth percentile or something because I didn’t really study.”
“You did, too,” his dad said.
“I must have gotten the easy words,” Christensen added. “I didn’t know all of them, but I just took a crack at it.”
Before he went to collect his prizes, the seventh grader ran back to add one more statement.
“I also want to say that I’m representing people on the spectrum,” Christensen said. “They really can do great things.”
His mother, Elizabeth Christensen, said he has “high functioning autism.”
Christensen, Lewis and Long will represent Gallatin County at the Montana Treasure State Spelling Bee in Billings on Saturday, March 19.