JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Duval County eighth-grader Saachi Sharma was crowned regional champion at the 74th annual First Coast Spelling Bee hosted by the Jacksonville Sports Council and WJXT Friday evening at the historic Florida Theatre downtown.
The winning word: methodically.
Bragging rights aside, Saachi, who attends Darnell Cookman School of Medical Arts, will receive an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C., to represent the First Coast at the 91st Scripps National Spelling Bee in May.
The 13-year-old was among 24 of the brightest young minds from Alachua, Baker, Bradford, Clay, Columbia, Duval, Flagler, Hamilton, Madison, Nassau, Putnam, St. Johns, Suwannee and Union counties who competed for the regional crown.
Both JAXSPORTS Council and WJXT had never before put on a spelling bee, much less one that was broadcast to a live television audience of hundreds of thousands.
"We're used to organizing big events, but there are nuances to every event that you put on," said JAXSPORTS Council CEO Alan Verlander. "A spelling bee is far outside of our typical framework, but I'm very pleased with how our staff has taken this on."
Verlander credited the vision of bringing the excitement of the competition to a wider audience to WJXT Vice President and General Manager Bob Ellis, whom he said saw the event's potential from Day One.
"My goal always is to find and create events for the television station that are local," Ellis said. "This is, to me, a great, underappreciated perhaps, local event that we can turn into something to celebrate our community, these kids and good things that are happening."
Ellis said putting the event on air and online not only showcased the students, but also presented an opportunity to reach people, particularly contestants' loved ones, who may not have been able to see the competition in person.
"This is a chance for us to invest our resources and people into telling the stories of these 24 kids, to make these kids stars for the night and reward them for their hard work," he said.
Friday night represented the crest of months of studying, time and energy the students spent in the hopes of becoming the region's top speller and advancing to the national stage.
The contestants weren't the only ones heavily invested in the competition. The pressure was also on News4Jax anchor Melanie Lawson, the spelling bee's pronouncer.
Lawson devoted the past two weeks to studying hundreds of words. She consulted dictionaries, other pronouncers and even YouTube.
"German, Russian, Greek, Italian, Spanish -- all of the words have different etymologies, so the challenge has been figuring out how to pronounce them all correctly," she said. "It's not for the faint of heart."