I'm really not sure how college players keep their cool during the NCAA basketball tournament. Screaming fans are everywhere, the referee whistles seem constant and they've got the added pressure of single elimination. Yet time after time, one of those kids hits a buzzer beating, game-winning three point shot. And although I have no horses left in the race this tournament, I still find my blood pressure rising profusely in every close match-up -- the game is just that intense.
But the rest of my family bleeds blue and gold this time of year, and they were totally thrilled by the early round performance of homegrown hoops star Vander Blue, Marquette's junior guard and graduate of Madison Memorial, Class of 2010. His last second layup to best Davidson in the opener was an absolute heart stopper. And his second round three-pointer with 1:25 remaining was key to ensuring the nail biter against Butler finally went Marquette's way.
But Blue wasn't the only product of the Madison Metropolitan School System to exhibit remarkable grace under pressure this past week. Just hours before the Golden Eagles clinched their berth in the Sweet Sixteen, Aisha Khan, a thirteen year old seventh grader from Spring Harbor Middle School was fully engaged in her own special kind of March Madness.
From the stage of the Edgewood College auditorium, Khan asked Brad Williams, the veteran "pronouncer" for the Badger State Spelling Bee, for the definition, language of origin and part of speech for 17 difficult words. She then successfully spelled "synusia," the word missed by her next closest competitor, followed by the equally remote "temerarious," to beat out 47 other middle schoolers for this year's state spelling title.
Now you don't need to be particularly tall, muscular, or even the least bit physically coordinated to be an elite speller. But there is no question that you need nerves of steel coupled with the will to train like champion athlete. Snigdha Nandipati, last year's winner of the Scripps National Spelling Bee , held annually in Washington, D.C, studied six to 10 hours a day on weekdays and 10-12 hours on weekends to give herself a shot at the national spelling crown. She worked with over 30,000 flash cards and spent time researching word history and etymology rather than simply attempting to memorize as many words as she could.
This year, Wisconsin champ Aisha Khan will also find herself at the Big Dance --the Scripps -- come late May. And while they probably won't host any Bracketology pre event shows, ESPN will televise the Bee, highlighting the incredibly tense nature of competitive spelling and elevating it to sports stature, at least for the day.
The favorite, many say, for this year's competition is Arvind Mahankali of Queens, NY who will be appearing at nationals for the fourth consecutive year.
But I will plan to watch, nonetheless, wearing a borrowed Spring Harbor sweatshirt.
Because we all know Cinderella stories do happen. And they don't always have to involve alley oops, jump shots or fast breaks.
Sometimes all it takes is the ability to spell terms that rarely appear in spell check, like "guetapens" -- the winning word for last year's nationals--correctly.