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Navajo Fifth-Grader Faces Stiff Competition at National Spelling Bee

Navajo Nation fifth-grader Kelvin Winney competed at the National Spelling Bee with his family in the audience after a fundraising campaign.

Ten-year-old Kelvin Winney paused, lips pursed, eyes on the ceiling.

For months, he’d been studying a list of more than 1,000 words, tackling a handful every night in his home on the Navajo Nation. He’d spelled his way through local competitions and won the Navajo Spelling Bee in March, earning one of 285 seats at the 88th annual Scripps National Spelling Bee.

At stake at the competition, held at National Harbor, Maryland, was a $30,000 cash prize, along with the title of top speller in the nation.

But on May 27, just minutes into the first oral round of the bee, Winney found himself in a tight spot. The bee’s official pronouncer, Jacques Bailly, gave Winney a word he didn’t know: Malihini. It’s a Hawaiian word that means “newcomer or stranger among the people of Hawaii.”

As per bee rules, Winney had two minutes to ask questions about the word’s etymology, alternative pronunciations, part of speech or use in a sentence. But ultimately, Winney was on his own in front of the microphone, with dozens of lights and cameras aimed at his face as he wrestled with the word.

“M-a-l-l-a-n-h-i-e,” he spelled, hope hanging on every letter. With a sharp “ding” of a bell, Winney was eliminated, the first of what would be 283 spellers to take the long, lonely walk off the stage.

“I got nervous,” Winney said afterward. “I didn’t recognize the word and I got scared. I had to just take a guess.”

But Winney, the youngest winner in the history of the Navajo Nation Spelling Bee, knew the odds were not in his favor. A fifth-grader from Chinle, Arizona, Winney loves science and math, and he knew how daunting a task he shouldered on-stage at the bee.

Statistically speaking, Winney had a .003 percent chance at emerging as top speller. His onstage rivals included 11 returning semifinalists, including spellers who had already competed at the national level four or five times.

But just getting to the bee was a feat in itself. The 285 spellers—all between the ages of 8 and 15—came from a pool of more than 11 million students who competed at some level during the 88th annual bee. That means each speller who competed at the Scripps bee was already numbered among the top .000026 percent of spellers nationwide.

Alysa Landry

Ten-year-old Kelvin Winney represented the Navajo Nation at the 88th Scripps National Spelling Bee on May 27.

For Winney, however, the bee was about much more than words. After winning the Navajo spelling bee, he was determined to take his entire family with him to Washington, D.C.

Sponsored by Navajo Times, Winney was allowed to take a chaperone with him to the national competition, but he wanted both of his parents, two older siblings, his grandparents and his infant nephew to make the journey with him. So the family started raising funds, said Winney’s mother, Nora McKerry. The initial goal was $5,000.

“We started selling hotdogs,” McKerry said. “Then there was a yard sale here and there. Bingo. A song and dance.”

It wasn’t until McKerry posted on GoFundMe that the effort gained momentum. When a story ran in The Arizona Republic, donations started pouring in, and the family raised more than $10,500.

“We do everything as a family,” McKerry said. “We’ve never really been separated. It was really important that we all go because Kelvin wanted to share the experience with his sister, brother, dad, the new baby. His first thought was for all of us.”

All seven of his family members were in the audience May 27 when Winney stood in the national spotlight. They held their breath as he considered the word, McKerry said, and when they heard the “ding” they exhaled, almost in relief.

“It was nerve-wracking,” she said. “When he was eliminated, we knew we could still enjoy Washington, D.C., as a family.”

Yet Winney isn’t done with spelling. He’s already planning to try again next year.

“It will take a lot of work to learn the words and study,” he said. “There’s a lot of people out there supporting me and my family. With all that in mind, I want to do better next year.”

The 2015 national spelling bee ended in a tie May 28 when two Indian Americans exhausted the word list. Vanya Shivashankar, 13, and Gokul Venkatachalam, 14, were named co-champions after correctly spelling the words “scherenschnitte” and “nunatuk.”