KISSIMMEE, Fla. — The lights are up, the stage is set and the championship trophy is standing by, ready to be handed to a new champion of the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
“We're excited to be back all in one room for that championship moment,” said Dr. Michael Durnil, executive director of the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
It’s been a long time coming for this year’s competition.
Last year’s Bee had to be nixed because of the pandemic, marking the first cancelation for the competition since World War II.
This year’s Bee is also in a new location this year: at the ESPN Wide World of Sports, near Disney World in Florida.
“We're usually in Washington, D.C., but because the NBA had success with the bubble here, we found that this would be a great place to be concerned about the safety and security of the spellers,” Dr. Durnil said. “They'll notice that the spellers will be socially distant. They'll be wearing masks. We've taken all the precautions because of the age of the spellers.”
The spellers include 12-year-old Vihaan Sibal from Waco, Texas.
“I was pretty happy because my last year in Nationals, 2018, I didn't even make it past the preliminaries,” Vihaan said. “So, this was a pretty big deal for me.”
It’s also a big deal for 14-year-old Zaila Avant-garde from Harvey, Louisiana, just outside New Orleans.
“It feels wonderful,” Zaila said. “I just feel like the whole time I've been here, I'm just walking around in a dream.”
That dream comes with a few surprises this year, including a visit from First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, who will be in the audience and speak with the spellers and their families before the competition.
The competition will include new rules in the finals, including spellers needing to know a word’s meaning and a potential “spell-off” to ensure there are no ties and only one champion.
“The level of competitors has increased to such a high level that we're leveling up the competition to meet that preparation. Just like in other sports, the rules change over time, so has the Spelling Bee,” Dr. Durnil said. “The drama will be there.”
The Scripps National Spelling Bee starts at 8 p.m. ET on Thursday night. It will be broadcast on ESPN 2, live across all time zones.