Published: Aug. 8, 2017 By

Taste of top-notch competition whets 12-year-old’s appetite to return to national spelling bee

Until he participated in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., in May, Niwot’s Ben Lenger, 12, and his family didn’t realize that such competitions are virtually unknown in countries where English is not spoken.

That little nugget of information—confirmed by John McWhorter, the famed linguistics professor at Columbia University—was provided during the competition by Jacques Bailly, a Denver native who won the bee in 1980 and is now associate professor of classics at the University of Vermont. Bailly has served as the official “pronouncer” for the national competition since 2003 and was featured in the 2006 film, Akeelah and the Bee.


Ben Lenger, the Boulder Valley spelling bee champion, competes in the national bee in May. Photo courtesy of Scripps National Spelling Bee.

“He explained why spelling bees work in English but not in other languages,” said Ben’s mother, Audrey Lenger. “In French, once you learn the rules, or in Spanish or German, spelling is pretty uniform. There is not the sense of adventure you have in English.”

Thrilled to have earned a trip to the finals after winning his local bee and the regional finals in February, Ben technically tied for 41st along with scores of other spellers. He survived the first two rounds onstage but, he says, “messed up a couple of roots” on a written vocabulary and spelling test, preventing him from moving on. 

“I feel I did as well as I could have hoped for,” Ben said. “I had a great time, but professional is a very good word for (the finalists). They are just on an entirely different level.”

The University of Colorado Boulder’s College of Arts and Sciences has provided funding for the families of Boulder County winners to travel to the finals for three years.

“Thanks to the support from CU, and watching our nickels and dimes, we were able to take the whole family,” said Audrey, who traveled with her husband, Steve, and younger son, Jon, to cheer Ben on.

The family enjoyed being in the ballroom where the competition takes place, but decided to watch the final rounds from the comfort of their rented condo, where they could enjoy snacks and drinks while listening to the announcer’s “sports” commentary — Ooh, this one might trip him up … watch that second vowel … this one comes from the Greek… — Audrey said.

Of course, the trip wasn’t all about Latin roots and spelling bee trivia. They visited the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution and its annex, a top priority for aerospace-fascinated Ben.

“I think my favorite part was the North American X-15, the rocket plane that took pilots into the fringes of space at five times the speed of sound, including Neil Armstrong before he did the moon landing stuff,” Ben said. He was only slightly less awed at seeing the Concorde, Lockheed Martin’s SR71 Blackbird, the space shuttle Discovery, and the Enola Gay, which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

The family also visited George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon, where Ben was particularly impressed to see an actual piece of the Bastille sent to the American president by the Marquis de Lafayette.

Two weeks after the competition, the family traveled to Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Italy and the United Kingdom. Since returning to Niwot, Ben has been “checking out a lot of books on rocketry, the history of space travel and the space race from Longmont Public Library,” as well as playing a little Minecraft and Jurassic World.

But he’s also making time to study up on Greek and Latin roots before heading off to eighth grade at Sunset Middle School in August.

“Do I want to go back to the finals? Oh, yeah,” he said. “It was really fun being part of something so huge and famous and well-known.”