Superlative Speller

Superlative SpellerOwen Duffy Photo

FJMS rising eighth-grader Owen Duffy’s Cinderella Trip to the national spelling bee

By Charlie Morrison │ Community Editor

Langlauf (pronounced “läŋ-ˌlau̇f”), is one of those words that Fort Johnson Middle School (FJMS) rising eighth-grader and Lowcountry spelling champion Owen Duffy would probably prefer to never hear, let alone use, again. The word, a noun that is Germanic in origin, translates roughly to a long cross-country skiing race, tripped up the 13-year-old Duffy in the unforgiving second round of the 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee back in May, bringing to an abrupt end the journey he’d been on for the past two months. And while the son of Sheri and Brian Duffy is by all accounts a stand-out student, his unceremonious outing at the national spelling championship held annually in Washington, D.C. served as a reminder that deep down, Owen is still just a typical 13-year-old. And that’s fine by him. “I compete because I can,” says Duffy in a recent interview with JIM. “And I just wanted to see how I could do,” he continues. Even making the national finals is an incredible accomplishment, and one for which all of the Lowcountry is proud. And while Duffy, a member of the Junior Beta Club and FJMS’ reigning spelling and geography bee champion, was certainly deserving of his opportunity, his journey was still a bit of a Cinderella story. After winning the middle school spelling bee late last year, Duffy finished third at the County competition. And while the defeat delivered a blow to Duffy’s confidence, it did qualify him for the Lowcountry’s regional spelling bee, Spellbound!

Admittedly, Duffy didn’t see himself winning, and he studied sparingly. But when the lights came on, Duffy rose to the occasion, beating out spellers from the Berkeley, Charleston, Colleton, Dorchester 2 and 4 school districts, along with students from religious and independent schools and home-schooled children in taking first place in the event. The win at Spellbound was both unexpected and providential, in that it won Duffy a spot in the national championships, the Scripps National Spelling Bee, held May 29 in the Maryland Ballroom of the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland.

The bid came complete with an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C. sponsored by the Post and Courier and Heritage Trust Federal Credit Union for he and a parent/escort. For his father Brian, who gets to see his son daily as a Physical Education teacher at FJMS, just making it to the national finals was a reward itself. “That was huge (winning Spellbound!), and we were just so proud of him,” says the elder Duffy, beaming. “Going up there we had no thoughts of winning. And then 50 got down to 20, we started thinking ‘he’s got a chance.’ At 10, we were saying ‘we’ve got to win this thing and go to D.C.’”

In the end, the entire six-member Duffy family made the trip. And while Duffy was eliminated on his just his first opportunity in front of the cameras, becoming one of about a dozen from the field of 281 spellers to go out in the second round, he was a good sport. Instead of heading home, Duffy and his family stayed on to watch the rest of the competition, which was eventually won by New York, New York’s Arvind Mahankali, who took the title with his correct spelling of “knaidel,” following second-place finisher Pranav Sivakumar’s misspelling of “cyanophycean .” Duffy’s a competitor at heart and took the loss as he’d take one in his two favorite sports basketball and baseball, with difficulty. Moreover, it was the nature of his defeat that annoyed the teenager. Duffy approached the microphone, first standing too far from it to be heard when he was given “langlauf” to spell.

Duffy struggled to repeat the word, forcing chief pronouncer Jacques Bailly to repeat the word several times before tournament judges accepted Duffy’s pronunciation of it. In the end, the combination of nerves and the Germanic word got him, with Duffy spelling the word “l-a-u-n-l-a-u-f”. Simply watching his son struggle on the national, televised stage was tough for Brian Duffy and the rest of his family. “I was kind of emotional because I could hear him struggling with it. And when we heard him repeat the word over and over without getting the pronunciation, we felt that he was in trouble,” says Owen father Brian. As to whether he’s on the level of the top spellers in the country, and up to the challenge of correctly spelling words from the uber-difficult word set tournament officials save for only the championship’ final around, Duffy has no problem smiling and laughing “no, I was lost when they were in the final few rounds.”

And for the 13-year-old, who has plans to compete in the qualifying tournaments again next year, not being the best speller in America is just fine, after all he’s got a life to lead, and a well-rounded one at that. The two-sport star also plays the French horn in FJMS’ honor band, acts in plays, and lives the life of an average teenager. For Duffy, noogies from older siblings Ian and Carly and time at the beach with his younger brother Finn are in his near future this summer, following that and his 8th grade year, Duffy hopes to join is sister Carly at Charleston County’s Academic Magnet High School, from which Ian just graduated and Carly is a rising junior. For more information on the Scripps National Spelling Bee, visit their website at

© 2013 Wiser Time Publishing, Inc. 

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