The world was hanging on his every word.
Frank Cahill looked unstoppable as he methodically spelled every word correctly during the first six rounds of the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Maryland May 30-31, reaching the championship round with eight other hopefuls and beating out 270 contestants from around the world.
Then, the first sign of trouble.
Cahill winced when the moderator read his word, “porwigle,” which is another term for a tadpole. The 14-year-old tried in vain to dissect the noun. The language of origin was English and there was only one pronunciation, factors that did not lend any help.
Those watching the ESPN broadcast of the annual event, including hundreds of Colorado supporters, simultaneously hoped his guess would be correct. But an extra “g” spelled the end. The bell rang and Cahill was escorted from the stage.
But perhaps the most noticeable thing about that moment was his gracious attitude and constant smile. After all, making it to the top 7 was a tremendous accomplishment for the Ave Maria Catholic School student. And, as always, there were his parents, Michael and Jill, enthusiastically applauding their son from the sidelines.
Cahill had studied diligently with coach Scott Isaacs, who claimed the national title in 1989, and clearly the work paid off. Cahill became Colorado State Spelling Bee champ in March after spelling “metacarpal” - a word he immediately knew - and qualified for the prestigious Scripps competition.
That foray into the national spotlight was his first and although he didn't place first, Cahill says he is "quite happy" with his performance. The words grew more challenging and the field grew more formidable. Eventually, San Diego resident Snigdha Nandipati won in the 13th round with the word “guetapens.”
Cahill got the chance to goof around in front of the television cameras during down periods. At one point, he donned a pair of zany sunglasses and mugged wildly for a segment that showed the contestants’ less-serious sides. He also made some new friends.
“We have a lot in common because we all have such an interest and passion for the English language,” he said, adding he was thrilled to be part of the annual contest.
He confirmed the day after his elimination that he was unfamiliar with “porwigle.” His dad referred it as a “knockout word” because it has few etymological clues to assist spellers. He said a group of coaches discussed “porwigle” afterward and they had never seen the word listed on study sheets or used during a competition.
“Almost anyone who doesn’t know that word would do two g’s,” Michael Cahill said. He later said it was “remarkable” that his son was able to study for 11 months and make it so far, largely because some of the other finalists have devoted years to the craft.
Unfortunately, Cahill is unable to make another run at the title because of age restrictions in Colorado. It's not something, however, that's going to slow him down. He excels at math and said he plans to explore other subjects as he goes into ninth grade next year.
“I’ll see what things interest me and find another opportunity,” he said.