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East Setauket’s Ryan Himmelsbach wins Hofstra spelling bee

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Ryan Himmelsbach, 12, spelled "requiem" correctly to win the 2017 Hofstra Long Island Regional Scripps Spelling Bee on Sunday, Feb. 12, 2017. Ryan, a seventh-grader at Paul J. Gelinas Junior High School in East Setauket, will compete in the national spelling bee this spring in Maryland. Credit: Howard Schnapp

For Ryan Himmelsbach, an East Setauket seventh-grader, correctly spelling “requiem” capped a three-year dream.

Ryan, who placed first Sunday in the Hofstra Long Island Regional Scripps Spelling Bee and will advance to the competition’s finals this spring, was making his third appearance.

Since placing third last year, Ryan, 12, trained rigorously, waking up early to memorize lists of difficult-to-spell words and adding the discipline to his after-school homework routine. He studied the origins of root words and reviewed ones identified by experts as commonly misspelled.

“I’m just glad it’s all done,” Ryan said after the tournament, having outlasted 47 other competitors through 11 rounds in three hours. “I’ve just been studying words, so even though this was the most dramatic time, I still studied a lot. I just take notice of a lot of words that I see.”

The student at Paul J. Gelinas Junior High School in the Three Village school district clinched the win after correctly spelling “requiem” — a word that was familiar to him. He got to the final round by spelling an unfamiliar word in the round before: “hamate,” defined as having a “hooked” appearance.

Ryan said he initially struggled with whether “hamate” contained a “y” as the third letter. He recalled the spelling of a similar word, “ramate,” which means to have branches.

Students sat silently in chairs on the stage of Hofstra University’s Helene Fortunoff Theater, watching as their peers spelled words read aloud by an announcer. They took their time, asking for the words to be repeated, a definition, the part of speech and the language of origin.

A bell rung if students misspelled the word, and they quickly took their seats in the audience.

Ryan’s mother, Allison Himmelsbach, said while her son may have not known some of the words, he “was able to piece them together because he learned all those other things, and that’s really what led to his win today.”

Judges used a prepared list of words distributed to students in advance for the first six rounds, then moved on to the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

Head judge Ethna Lay, associate director of the Digital Research Center at Hofstra, said the particular focus on language showed “they’re really paying attention to etymology.”

“Spelling isn’t really about mechanical organization of letters,” Lay said. “It’s about looking for the story of the word: how it passes from one language to the next.”

The runner-up was Kevin Chabla, 13, of East Hampton, an eighth-grader at the Springs School competing for the first time. He called the second-place finish “bittersweet,” because competitors range from grades four to eight, and he has aged out of the tournament.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee will take place May 28 to June 3 at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland. The winner will receive a prize of $40,000, and the second-place prize is $30,000. The final round is usually broadcast on ESPN.

The 48 students who competed in Sunday’s “spelldown” were among 133 who sat for a written exam last Sunday at Hofstra.

Ryan said he will go back to his tailored routine. “I’m still going to do a lot,” he said. “But I’m not going to like go crazy over it, because it’s very hard to win it if it’s your first year. I’m just going to do what I can.”

Final five words

  • requiem: a grand musical hymn in honor of the dead
  • caudal: constituting or belonging to or relating to a tail
  • hamate: having a “hooked” appearance
  • menagerie: a collection of wild or foreign animals, cages or enclosures, especially one kept for exhibition
  • flautino: a small flute, a piccolo

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