Samantha Ho and Daniel Fordham have loved the challenge of competing in spelling bees since they were third graders.
This week the two Spotsylvania County straight A students get a shot at winning the trophy in the biggest bee of all: The 91st Annual Scripps National Spelling Bee at the Gaylord National Resort in National Harbor, Md.
It kicked off Monday, May 27, with a barbecue and assembly for the 516 contestants and their families . Preliminaries begin today. Samantha, sixth-grader at Thornburg Middle School, will be wearing No. 448 and Daniel, an eighth-grader at Freedom Middle School, will be wearing No. 496 when they appear on the stage between 4 and 5:20 p.m. and at the same time Wednesday if they advance to the second round.
ESPN3 will cover the preliminary rounds live beginning at 9:30 a.m. both days, and will also live stream them on the ESPN App. Live coverage of the finals will begin at 10 a.m. Thursday, May 31, on ESPN2 and conclude starting at 8:30 p.m. on ESPN. Finals coverage will also be streamed live on the ESPN App, and viewers can test their own spelling on ESPNU, a multiple-choice, play-along channel.
This will be both Samantha's and Daniel's first time at the national bee, and their appearances will be a rematch of sorts.
They were the last two contestants in the Fredericksburg Regional Spelling Bee in March. Samantha edged out Daniel by correctly spelling amphivorous, which earned her a place among the 278 spellers who will be competing at the national bee through the traditional sponsored path.
Daniel applied and was selected to compete in the national bee through RSVBee, a new invitational program that Scripps launched last December. It’s open to spellers who attend a school officially enrolled in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, and are a current school spelling bee champion and/or former participant in the national finals.
Samantha, the daughter of Quinn and Simon Ho, said last week that she'd been preparing for the national bee by studying a couple hours a day depending on how much homework she has. She studied root words, prefixes and suffixes, which offer clues to a word's origin and construction, along with words a list supplied by the national bee.
The list included some words that were new to her, such as Talmud, minion and austausch, which she defined as a squall. The national bee will also ask contestants to spell words not on the official list, so she also used the dictionary to find interesting words to study.
"Mainly, she's doing it herself," said her mother. "She will ask me to question her, but mainly she's studying by herself. She's a very self-disciplined person."
Samantha said that she got hooked on entering spelling bees after winning her class bee in the third grade, and has competed in one every year since then. She made it to the regional bee last year and came in second. She said she was happy to win it this year because the time and effort she spent preparing didn't go to waste. She said that she's just glad that she gets to be in the national bee, and it's an honor.
"It's going to be really interesting," Samantha said.
Competing in spelling bees isn't her only interest. She also attends Chinese school in Herndon on Saturdays and has been the Spotsylvania County The 24 Game champ for the last two years. The 24 Game is an math card game in which the objective is to find a way to manipulate four numbers so that the end result is 24.
Samantha said she wants to be a pediatrician when she grows up because she'll be helping others, and the work "doesn't include that much blood."
Daniel, the son of Joe and Tuyana Fordham, said that he entered his first bee because he wanted to try something new, and realized he was good at it after winning it at the school level for the next three years.
He made it to the regional level for the first time as a fourth grader in 2014, and the second time this year after coming in second place to Samantha at the county level. Both first and second place winners got to compete in the regional bee.
Information about the RSVBee, which Daniel called one of the bee's "horrible puns," was in the goody bag that the regional bee contestants received. He said he thought it looked like a lot of work, but his parents encouraged him to apply because it's the last year he's eligible. He was one of 241 spellers chosen out of 855 applicants.
Daniel said that he's been using the bee's online study tool and reviewing root words, prefixes and suffixes about a half hour a day to prepare for the bee.
"Boy howdy are there a lot of roots," he said. "For every concept, the thing that looks like fish, or thing that's colored green, there are 10 suffixes or roots that mean that."
Daniel said that he knew most of the words he was asked to spell at the regional bee, although he thought the bee’s pronouncer, University of Mary Washington Associate Professor of Linguistics Paul Fallon, looked for obscure ones when he asked contestants to spell things not on the provided list.
Daniel said that he was so tense when he competed in his first bee that he couldn't stop shaking. He said he doubts that he'll be that tense at the national bee because he's already competed in six smaller ones.
"At this point, it's like, alright, let's see how I do," he said. This is something I can't predict with accuracy because I haven't been there before. I'm not a person who panics. Mainly, I'm too lazy."
His mother might have a different view. She's taught him to read and write Russian since he was little, he's currently learning Spanish and he'll attend the Commonwealth Governor's School this fall at Riverbend High School. In his spare time, he enjoys playing video games and with his two cats.
As for his future, Tuyana Fordham said that her son is thinking of a career in science. "He's very curious," she said.
The RSVBee doesn't cover Daniel's expenses to compete in the bee, so Potomac Environmental Inc., the North Stafford company that his mother works for, stepped in. She said it's providing the family with $750 for meals and lodging.
As the regional bee winner, Samantha received an all-expense paid trip valued at more than $1,000 to compete in the national bee—with $599 for expenses—from The Free Lance–Star.