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Tampa Bay is on a spelling bee winning streak

Mark Parker



Tampa's Bruhat Soma, 12, became Florida's fourth Scripps National Spelling Bee champion in the event's 96-year history Thursday night. Pinellas County's first victor served as a guest analyst. Photo: X (formerly Twitter).

Bruhat Soma, a Tampa eighth grader, correctly spelled 29 words in 90 seconds Thursday night to break a tie and secure the 2024 Scripps National Spelling Bee championship.

Bruhat, whose winning word was “abseil” (a British term for rappel), had some local support in National Harbor, Maryland. Pinellas County’s first champion had a front-row seat as a guest analyst.

Dev Shah, then 14, competed in the 2023 event as a Morgan Fitzgerald Middle School student. The Largo teen bested 231 competitors on a national stage by correctly spelling “psammophile,” an organism that thrives in sandy environments.

Now a ninth grader at Palm Harbor University High School, Dev was the first Tampa Bay resident to win the bee in 24 years. Before leaving for the guest analyst gig, one of many, he told the Catalyst that having a local winner creates a “snowball effect.”

“When one winner wins, more people are inspired,” Dev said. “I’m glad that I can serve as the inspiration for Pinellas kids – and Floridian kids, in general.”

In May 2023, Dev Shah became the first Florida resident to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 25 years. Photo: Pinellas County Schools.

Dev noted that Florida lacks the spelling bee support found in other states. He believes Morgan Fitzgerald was the only Pinellas school to participate in 2023.

Nupur Lala won the region’s last championship in 1999. She also starred in Spellbound, an Oscar-nominated documentary that inspired Dev to compete 17 years after its release.

He is likely responsible for Pinellas having a spelling bee program. As a sixth-grader, Dev’s principal created a schoolwide event at his request to help him practice.

However, success proved elusive. Dev tied for 51st in 2019 and 76th in 2021. After failing to advance from the regional tournament, Dev said he felt like giving up on his dream.

“I actually had to go to Orlando, not Tampa,” he added. “I was the only one from Tampa because there wasn’t a regional sponsor for us.”

Dev decided to pursue his third and final opportunity at linguistic glory in 2023. The teacher running Morgan Fitzgerald’s program then left the school.

After two months of uncertainty, an English teacher pledged to continue the event. “Shout out to Ms. Micalizzi,” Dev said.

Every school in Pinellas offered spelling bees this year. Dev expressed astonishment that the Tampa Bay Rays and Rowdies now sponsor the regional tournament.

“I don’t want to take all the credit for it,” he said. “But I feel that if I didn’t win, none of it would have really happened.”

Dev became just the third winner from Florida in the Scripps Spelling Bee’s 96-year history. Bruhat is now the fourth.

Dev has since accomplished another goal – becoming an author. The Washington Post, Tampa Bay Times, Fortune Magazine and Teen Magazine have published over 30 of his articles.

Many described the 14-hour days spent studying word roots and language patterns. Dev explained that “high-pressure” bees require more than memorization.

“Even if you do study every word and memorize everything, you’re not going to remember it,” he said. “There are half a million words in the dictionary. It is humanly impossible to remember all of those.”

In April, Dev joined the stars of ABC’s sitcom Abbott Elementary on The Jennifer Hudson Show for a mock spelling bee. He has also launched an online bee and coaching service.

Dev encourages kids to “try out everything” until they find a purpose. He also stressed the benefits of perseverance, as evidenced by his early failed attempts at reaching the pinnacle of spelling competitions.

“If you love what you do, the rest of the stuff doesn’t really matter,” Dev added. “The result doesn’t matter. There’s just something so special about taking a chance on yourself.”




1 Comment

1 Comment

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    June 1, 2024at7:26 pm

    Scripps baby, that’s Athens, Ohio, lets goooo!!

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