Spelling big words that are difficult to pronounce has always come easily to Sean Conley, but it took six years of intense studying and dogged determination for the 13-year-old from Shakopee, Minn., (pop. 20,568) to become the nation’s top speller.
“No matter what somebody’s goal is, to accomplish that goal you really have to want to,” says Conley, who won the 74th annual Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee for correctly spelling succedaneum—which means a substitute—in the competition’s 16th round last May.
To prepare for the spelling bee, Conley used a 10,000-plus word study guide, writing down each word and looking up its meaning. “Since I really wanted to win, I put a lot of effort into it,” he says.
“It was Sean’s desire to win that really kept him going,” adds Conley’s mother, Bry, who homeschooled her son until he was in eighth-grade.
Spelling always has been Conley’s strong suit; when he was 2, he spelled Albuquerque with magnetic letters on the refrigerator door. In 1995, at the age of 7, Conley was inspired to use his natural ability while watching the National Spelling Bee on ESPN.
“The next year I really wanted to do the spelling bee,” he recalls. So he did.
Conley competed in California, where he lived at the time, in the third-, fourth- and fifth-grades, but he didn’t spell well enough to advance to the national finals. With undaunted determination, he continued his quest in sixth-grade and broke into the 1999 National Spelling Bee, claiming ninth place. In the 2000 competition, he was runner-up.
Conley credits his family for much of his spelling success. Being schooled at home, he had the flexibility to prepare for competitions. In addition to spelling drills, his mother sometimes let him study spelling words for three or more hours a day. His father, Mike, and younger brothers, Alden and Devin, also got involved, as family spell-alongs replaced sing-alongs during long car trips.
Following the 2000 competition, the family moved to Minnesota and, for the first time, Conley attended a traditional school outside the home. He knew that meant he would have less time to prepare for the spelling bee, but his determination shattered any doubts he had about getting ready. Besides, it was the last year he was eligible to compete because he had reached the contest’s eighth-grade age limit. “If I didn’t go back, then I’d never have another chance to win the bee,” he recollects.
Conley’s 2001 win was historic. It was only the second time in the history of the National Spelling Bee that a runner-up returned to capture the championship. The first time was in 1981 when Paige Pipkin Kimble, now National Spelling Bee director, successfully spelled sarcophagus.
Kimble watched Conley seize the title this year. “I was holding my breath for him because I could remember distinctly what it felt like to be where he was,” Kimble says.
In addition to an engraved gold cup and $10,000 grand prize, the title earned Conley a chance to meet President Bush, appearances on the Today show and Good Morning America, and the opportunity to throw out the first pitch at a Minnesota Twins’ baseball game.
Meanwhile, Conley’s determination and hard work may inspire other teenagers, including his classmates at the Minnesota Renaissance School in Anoka, Minn., to pursue their passions.
“He really made an impact on them,” says Mary Anne Weninger, the school’s administrative assistant. “Seeing the work that he put in made the kids realize what it takes to reach a goal and that it can happen when you work at it.”