Keona Thomas Scripps National Spelling Bee

Keona Thomas, an eighth-grader at Manassas Christian School, competes virtually in the preliminary round of the Scripps National Spelling Bee on Saturday. 

Keona Thomas had been studying daily for months. Ever since the Manassas Christian School eighth-grader won the Prince William Regional Spelling Bee in March, she’d begun readying herself for the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Thomas was one of 209 spellers competing in the preliminary round of the national bee, which was conducted virtually and aired on ESPN3 on Saturday.

But around 2 p.m., Thomas’ scheduled time to spell came and went. If you’ve ever fumbled with the mute button on Zoom, you know how she felt. The judges couldn’t hear her over the connection from her school building.

She hadn’t accidentally muted herself, but the wait for Keona turned into hours. She was told she’d be back on by 5 p.m., but that turned into 9 p.m. In the preliminaries, spellers were given three words in succession – two to spell and one to define. If they completed all three successfully, they advanced to the quarterfinals.

“I was getting antsy but I got an opportunity to study,” Thomas told InsideNoVa after the competition. Still, she wasn’t fazed by the fact that the competition was being done virtually. “I was just going with it.”

But on her third and final word of the day, it was a more old-fashioned miscommunication that tripped up Thomas: pronunciation. An “a” and an “o” got mixed up in the delivery of the word, “eolith,” which she hadn’t studied. Off by a letter, she spelled it “ealith.”

“I think the anxiety built up when the tech stuff happened and then the long wait – we’re talking about all day – that created a lot of anxiety and you just get tired,” said her mother, Juliet.

Before that, Thomas had correctly spelled “Llullaillaco,” a dormant volcano at the border of Chile and Argentina, and defined “ventriloquy” with relative ease, both words she’d studied. Merriam-Webster defines “eolith” as “a very crudely chipped flint.”

“I thought, this isn’t too hard,” she said. “I didn’t know it, but it’s not too hard. I tried to sound it out.”

Keona said that’s how things go in spelling bees – you hope that you’ve seen the words you get. And if not, you hope they’re close to phonetic. She says she first became interested in the competitions because she’s an avid reader.

“I read a lot, so when I’m reading I pick up on vocabulary words and they help me do well in school,” she said, but it’s unclear if she’ll be spelling again competitively. As an eighth-grader, this is the final year she’s eligible for the Scripps bee.

In March, she correctly spelled 13 straight words to take home the prize for Prince William County, Manassas and Manassas Park in the event sponsored by InsideNoVa and the Bel-Air Woman’s Club. Her final word that day was “Mesopotamian.”

In the end Saturday, only 74 spellers reached the quarterfinal round. In that round, held Tuesday, 44 more were eliminated, leaving 30 to compete in the semifinals June 27. The semifinalists include two Northern Virginia spellers: Akshita Balaji of Merrifield, representing Fairfax County, and Ashrita Gandhari of Leesburg, representing Loudoun County.

The National Spelling Bee finals will be held in person at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., on July 8.

Jared Foretek covers the Manassas area and regional news across Northern Virginia. Reach him at


Jared Foretek covers the Manassas area and regional news across Northern Virginia. Reach him at

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