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'Bee' persistent: Longtime hopeful to take part in National Spelling Bee

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Ozi Obi, 12, an eighth-grader at The Oakwood School, will represent eastern North Carolina at the Scripps National Spelling Bee from May 26-30.

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By Kim Grizzard
The Daily Reflector

Friday, May 24, 2019

After a four-year dry spell, Greenville has a national spelling bee hopeful.

Twelve-year-old Ozioma Obi will be among a record 565 competitors at the 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee when the 92nd annual competition begins Monday in National Harbor, Md.

That is more than twice the number of students who participated in 2014 when then-Hope Middle School eighth-grader Lauren Lim advanced to her second national competition.

The following year, Ozioma, whom friends call Ozi, entered his first school spelling bee, placing second as a fourth-grader. He would place second or third in The Oakwood School bee for the next three years.

“He was almost there several times,” said Catherine Allen, middle school English teacher and coordinator of the bee at Oakwood. “That moment that he won, we were both in tears because I knew how much he wanted it.”

Ozi has received honors in MathCounts and Science Olympiad and has won a first-place award at regional History Day. But a spelling bee championship is something that has eluded him until this year.

He still remembers missing the word ignominious (shameful or humiliating) for what would have given him his first spelling bee victory at Oakwood at age 8. Earlier this year, Ozi correctly spelled flambeau (a French-origin word meaning flaming torch) to secure the school title. At regionals, he went 23 rounds, correctly spelling cordovan (a Spanish-origin word meaning kind of soft leather) to win the championship.

“A lot of words in the spelling bee did not originate in English,” Ozi said. “It's just like a reality check that a lot of spelling can and will be different than what you think it will be.”

Ozi's parents, Drs. Reginald and Ogugua Obi, natives of Nigeria, have exposed their three sons to the Igbo language at home, although Ozi does not necessarily expect that knowledge to benefit him in the spelling bee.

Instead, he is preparing by using spellingbee.com and studying dozens of pages of combined forms and roots.

From an early age Ogugua Obi found that her second-born son seemed to have an exceptional memory.

“When Ozi was young, maybe 8 or so, he just liked presidents,” she said. “We had this book about presidents ... He was just rattling off (facts), and I thought 'This is not normal.'”

Ozi displayed an usual talent for remembering names, dates and places, and showed an interest in geography from the time he was in preschool.

Earlier this year, he was named the winner of the geography bee at Oakwood, where he also is a member of the swim team. A violinist, Ozi is part of the Eastern Youth Orchestra and participates in a duet, Ford and Ozi (along with student Ford Amerson, who plays viola). The middle schoolers, who first played together as a fundraiser for people affected by Hurricane Florence, are now starting to book gigs.

The first, a wedding, fell just before the national spelling bee, an already busy time for the eighth-grader.

“Leading up to this, I had a violin audition, a research paper that I have to do and study for the bee,” Ozi said. “The spelling bee actually falls in a really inconvenient time, which is final exams.”

It also comes during Ozi's birthday. He will turn 13 the day that spellers head home after final competition.

But after years of working to get to the bee, Ozi expects that it will be worth the wait.

“I've heard so many positive things. I'm actually really excited to go on the trip,” he said. “Regardless of how I place, I think that it will definitely have been a worthwhile experience.”

Allen is happy to see her former student achieve his longtime goal.

“He's really worked for it since fourth grade, and this was his year,” she said. “The perseverance that he showed, the grit that he has, I just think it's very impressive.”

Round 2 preliminary competition will be shown from 9:45 a.m. to 4:35 p.m. Tuesday on ESPN 3, followed by Round 3 from 4:45-6:30 p.m. on Tuesday and from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday. Part 1 of finals will be shown from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday on ESPN 2, followed by Finals Part 2 from 8:30-10:30 p.m. Thursday on ESPN.

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