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Starr competes in national spelling bee
July 5, 2019


LESTER PRAIRIE, MN – Gavin Starr, son of Brandon and Sterling Stewart of Lester Prairie traveled to Washington, DC to compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in May.

An eighth-grader at Lester Prairie School, Gavin explained the process of getting from his classroom to Washington, DC.

“The first preliminary test is the classroom test, and that happens in December. After that is the school spelling bee in January. Two to three weeks after that is regionals, then two to three weeks after that is the state competition. Then, in May, is when the nationals take place.”

Gavin’s mom, Sterling, said, “He gets his spelling from reading so much. He consumes books.”

Gavin explained that he didn’t need to do much preparation for the classroom test, as he was confident he’d do well.

He didn’t do much preparation for the school bee either. Since the school is so small, he wasn’t concerned about placing. This year, Gavin won the school competition for the first time.

Gavin got serious and studied more as he moved forward in the competition.

He explained that for the regional competition, spellers are given a list of 500 words to study from. For state, the list increases to 1,500 words.

“For the national competition, they basically just give you the dictionary,” Gavin said.

Gavin uses a few techniques when spelling words during the live competition.

“I like to close my eyes and spell the words before I even say anything. You can usually know the spelling if you know the language of origin and the roots,” he explained.

Gavin placed fourth at regionals, just making the cut to advance to state. Gavin said he was nervous at each level of competition.

He stated, “I was most nervous at state, but for different reasons. By then, I knew how to talk in the mic and get close to it and be comfortable. At state, I was most nervous about spelling the words right.”

At nationals, Gavin was more nervous about the written test than the live spelling rounds.

Gavin shared that the national bee is actually an international event, with people from all over the world competing.

“There were people from India and China and other places,” he said.

The national spelling bee has been going on for 90 years, and is described as one of the nation’s oldest and most iconic competitions. More than 11 million students from around the nation participate in the competition each year.

The competition starts with preliminary testing Monday, rounds one through three Tuesday and Wednesday, and the final event Thursday. The finals are broadcast live on ESPN.

Gavin made it through the preliminary round, which entails a written spelling and vocabulary test, and made it through two live spelling rounds before misspelling “unanimity” in round three. Gavin spelled it with an “i” instead of an “a.”

“That was just a big mistake, because I could have easily spelled that right,” Gavin explained. “If I would have studied more and paid more attention, I would have gotten that one right.”

Two of Gavin’s teachers were influential in helping him get this far, Julie Olson and Michael Bjork.

Gavin said, “Ms. Olson is my language arts teacher, and Mr. Bjork is my science teacher. Mr. Bjork hosts the school bee every year, and if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have been able to participate in the bee at all.”

Sterling added, “He is an awesome teacher. We love him.”

Sterling texted Bjork during competitions to keep him updated. When she texted Bjork that Gavin placed fourth at regionals, he got excited and put it on the school announcements right away. He did the same when Gavin won state.

“He thought we were kidding,” Sterling said. “They didn’t know what to do because they never had anyone at the school get beyond state.”

For Gavin, the highlight of the experience was just being able to participate. He stated, “It was fun to be on stage, and fun to be competing.”

Gavin was sponsored by Southwest West Central Service Cooperative (SWWC) for the state spelling bee, and Lakes County Service Cooperative (LCSC) for the national spelling bee.

“LCSC and SWWC were great,” Gavin said. “They paid for the hotel, which was awesome, and also covered expenses like food and stuff.”

The sponsors noted that Gavin was not subdued like some previous winners, and they loved that. He was very vocal about how excited he was.

Gavin said, “I want to thank everyone who helped me get here, Ms. Olson, Mr. Bjork, LCSC and SWWC, my parents, and my family.

Sterling added appreciation to the family friend who took care of their dogs while they were in DC.

Gavin will be too old to compete next year, so he is thrilled to have ended his spelling bee career with a win at state and trip to the national competition.

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