Former spelling bee stars make money coaching newbies

NEW YORK • In the world of competitive spellers, Sylvie Lamontagne is a juggernaut. She placed fourth in last year's Scripps National Spelling Bee and ninth in 2015.

Last summer, she won the Spelling Bee of China's North America Spelling Champion Challenge, a contest for kids in the United States and China.

Now that the 14-year-old from Denver is no longer eligible to compete in this week's National Spelling Bee in Maryland - which is televised on ESPN and often turns kids such as Lamontagne into momentary celebrities - she is focusing on a new vocation: spelling bee coach.

Her rate? US$200 (S$277) an hour.

Bee aficionados said a recent surge in competition and a tightening of rules meant to limit co-champions have spawned a demand for younger coaches such as Lamontagne.

These high-schoolers or college kids, months or just a few years into their bee retirement, pass along tips on words to memorise and how to decode bizarre words based on their language of origin.

"As the spelling bee gets more and more difficult, there are people working harder and harder every year," Lamontagne said.

"There are definitely people in the last couple of years who are using coaches to get to the finals."

Earlier this year, Brainsy, a Washington, DC, software company, launched a website offering the services of recent spelling stars.

In addition to Lamontagne, its roster boasts Snigdha Nandipati, the 2012 champion and a Yale freshman; Cooper Komatsu, a high school freshman who placed seventh last year; Dev Jaiswal who nabbed fourth place in 2015; and Amber Born, 18, a high school senior who placed fourth in 2013.

They all charge US$200 an hour on the Brainsy site, or between US$100 and US$110 for half an hour, except for two instructors who charge between US$50 and US$60 for an hour and US$30 for half an hour.

"We are coming straight out of the bee and have the most direct contact to what it's like being up there on stage," Nandipati said.

"Everyone going to the National Spelling Bee now wants to go one step further so they're reaching out to former spellers.

"Some of those tips come down to how you're able to compose yourself on stage. It's got way more competitive since my time. If I was competing now, I wouldn't last long."

The parents of Kelly Mills, 13, a seventh-grader vying at this year's bee, spent US$110 for a half-hour session with Lamontagne.

"Originally, I thought it was kind of expensive, but for all the advice she gave, it was well worth it," Mills said.

"She gave me a few good tips on how to spell words you've never heard of before, based on language patterns and root words."

So far, the service has attracted a handful of clients, including Edith Fuller, a six-year-old who is competing in this year's bee as the youngest-ever contestant.

The founder of Brainsy, Mr John Miao, gave her free lessons because she is so young, he said.

His daughter, Bernadette, 16, who placed 50th in 2015, has given Fuller 45-minute weekly tutoring sessions since March.

Ms Paige Kimble, the National Spelling Bee's executive director who was the 1980 runner-up and 1981 champion, said: "There are people who say, 'I've reached the upper echelons of this pursuit, I've got some disposable income' and then there are the entrepreneurs who know it, see it and are racing to meet that need."

Mr Scott Remer, 23, who tied for fourth in the 2008 bee, believes he might have been among the very first of young bee retirees to carve out a coaching business.

In 2009, a fellow speller asked for his help. He obliged, pro bono. The next year, his student, Anamika Veeramani, won the whole thing.

Since then, he has published a popular guidebook Words Of Wisdom and coached three to five elite spellers a year at US$80 an hour.

"I have statistics, based on historical trends, that break down the National Spelling Bee's word lists by language of origin.

"And we try to spend an amount of time on each language proportionate to the frequency with which words from that language appear," said Mr Remer, now a master's degree student in England.

"The goal is to be flexible enough and to have accrued enough words in your memory bank and enough understanding of how language patterns work, to be able to spell words even if you have never heard of them before."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 01, 2017, with the headline 'Former spelling bee stars make money coaching newbies'. Print Edition | Subscribe