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Spelling Bee changed my life

Adopted from Business Insider

It definitely taught me to how to set goals and work incrementally towards them

Almost 10 years after winning the Scripps National Spelling Bee, Katharine Close still seems shocked by the experience that took her from her eighth-grade classroom to nationally broadcast TV, talk shows, and the White House.

"I really couldn't believe it, it actually happening was totally surreal," Kerry Close told Business Insider. "It's really surreal even now to think that all that stuff happened to me."

Close first went to the National Spelling Bee competition as a 9-year-old, after winning her fourth-grade spelling bee "almost by accident," she said. The New Jersey native was then given a list of 3,000 words to prep for the regional bee, which she also won, sending her to the national championship to compete against spellers from around the US.

Once Close got to Washington, DC, though, the "blind luck" that propelled her through the earlier competitions ran out, as she left the national bee in the second round.

"I had come in really confident after winning all these local competitions, and then got blown away by all these intimidating 13-year-olds," she said. 

However, she explained, after losing that first year, "I just wanted to come back and do better and better."

Close would return to the national bee for the next four years, doing better and better each time. Every competition, Close said, she would come back with a broader knowledge base, from both studying on her own time and seeing what kinds of words came up during the bee itself.

"From studying, you learn if it's a noun or an adjective it will be spelled a certain way, or if it's from Greek or from Latin it will be spelled a certain way," Close said. "My final year, I just decided to go all out and studied the entire dictionary for six months."

It paid off. Close won in 2006 — her last year of eligibility and the first year the bee was nationally broadcast — by correctly spelling "ursprache," a German word meaning a parent language.

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Speaking to ABC moments after she was crowned winner in the 2006 bee, Close said, "I couldn't believe it, I knew how to spell the word and I was just in shock ... I couldn't believe I would win."

As The New York Times pointed out when Close won, she was a notable contestant for "'being a regular kid" who knows "there's more to life than spelling."

Close told Business Insider that, surprisingly, the bee does not have a competitive atmosphere. She remembers how one person told her, "you're really competing against the dictionary and not the other kids."

The difference in who moves forward in the competition, according to Close, often comes down to luck.

"When you get to the top 10-15 kids or even the National Spelling Bee in general, I don't think any one person is better at it then another," she said. Sometimes, though, spellers will get words they don't even know how to approach.

Close got such a word the year before she won, getting knocked out of the final round after failing to spell "laetrile," a cancer drug that was used in Mexico during the 1980s.

"I'm not even sure now if I could pull it together," she said.

Almost a decade removed from the competition, Close is still influenced by her time on the spelling circuit — from her work ethic to the fact that she never needs to use spell check.

"It definitely taught me to how to set goals and work incrementally towards them," Close said. Working through the dictionary, for example, was "taking a large goal and breaking it down into little pieces."

Although it took her several attempts to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee, Close said she took a lot from the entire experience.

"Even as I was disappointed, I learned that if you put in effort you can see tangible results for your work, and that was really invaluable to me as a child," she said.

Kerry Close graduated from Cornell University in 2014, and she is pursuing a journalism master's degree in Business and Economic Reporting at New York University.