Sam Osheroff admits there's some pressure when it comes to defending his title as the Howard County Library Spelling Bee champion. But once he's on stage, the pressure, he said, will be off.
"I spell for myself," Sam said. "When you're on stage, it's crazy, but everything — the audience, the other competitors — just phase out until it's just you and the judge and, by extension, the word. It's a zone you get into."
An eighth-grader at Clarksville Middle School, Sam is preparing — as are dozens of other students in the county — for the eighth annual Howard County Spelling Bee Friday, March 9 at Reservoir High School
But Sam's a little different. He's the two-time defending champion — the first repeat winner in the bee's history.
"I've gotten better every year, which may be a coincidence, or that I'm working harder," said Sam, 13. "The sky's the limit this year; I'm working my hardest."
Sam is also the first Howard County representative to make it to the semifinal round at the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington. He's hoping for another opportunity, but right now he's spending every minute studying from lists provided by the bee, or the dictionary.
"There's a lot of (words)," Sam said, a copy of Webster's Unabridged Third New International Dictionary perched on his lap. "There's a ton of words and there's always going to be new ones. It's the same with any learning. You're never going to know it all, but the more words you know, well, the more you know."
The dictionary was a prize when Sam won as a sixth-grader. When he won again last year, he donated the second copy of the dictionary to his school.
"It's an amazing tool," he said. "But really, who needs two?"
Studying for the bee is a family affair. His parents help him study, as do his two younger brothers. It turns into a constant learning experience, said his mother, Nicole, and is more fun than academic. Completing the Sunday New York Times' crossword puzzle is a joint effort, and on a recent March afternoon, all the brothers had books in their hands.
"It's just fun," Sam said. "I've always been reading."
He's not exaggerating. His father, Joseph, said Sam finished reading the first three "Harry Potter" books by the time he began kindergarten.
The passion for spelling bees, too, is a family-wide. Sam's younger brother Daniel, 9, recently placed third in Pointers Run Elementary School's bee.
"Maybe that'll be a launching pad for the county bee," Daniel said.
Watching Daniel participate in Pointers Run's bee was nerve-wracking for Sam. It's harder to watch than it is to participate, he said, and his parents agreed with him.
"I just get filled with trepidation, and pride," Joseph Osherhoff said. "There's a piece of me up there with him. He's worked hard and he's prepared, but I don't want him to feel badly if he doesn't do well. I want him to feel good about what he's doing and about himself."
Sam can't look at his mother when he's on stage, he said, and Nicole Osheroff, too, sometimes has a hard time watching her son.
"I can tell when he doesn't know a word," she said. "There was a point last year where he spelled a word wrong (Sam's opponent also spelled the word incorrectly, keeping them both in the competition), and seeing him so sad for that minute was awful. He puts so much heart and soul into it, into everything he does."
Every year, Sam said, he's more prepared, but there's still a chance he won't know a word. That's where the secret of spelling bees comes in, he said.
"It's equal parts luck and skill," he said. "Last year, there were one or two words that I didn't know, and the luck part is not getting those words. The skill part of it is knowing the word, or reasoning your way through a word if you don't know it. You either know it or you work through it."
Spell enough words, Sam said, and a person begins to get a feel for the language and can make educated guesses appropriately — an "f" sound in German means the word contains a "v," for example. Even though the bee is based on the English language, English contains multitudes of words adopted from other languages — and that's one of the things Sam said was best about the bee.
"The language is huge and it's a mixing pot," he said. "Words from anywhere, from all around the globe, can be found in our language. It's a giant picture, with all the things coming together."