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Prior Spelling Bee Champs Try Their Hand At Current Competition

(KPIX 5) -- Spelling competitions have become so much more difficult, even past spelling bee national champions tell us they doubt if they would make the cut if they competed today.

Wendy Lai won the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 1996. Dan Greenblatt took home the trophy in 1984. Both told me the words and competition are especially tough these days.

"I don't think I'd get very far nowadays," Greenblatt said in an interview last year.

So we decided to find out how well they'd do if they could compete today. When school spelling champions took the 50-word written test last month to qualify for the CBS Bay Area Spelling Bee, Greenblatt quietly took the test with them. Later, we administered the same test to Lai at her home.

The results: Greenblatt only missed four words. He would have made the cut. Lai missed only five words.

They were good sports, considering we put them on the spot.

Both said they did not study beforehand. "It's kind of like having an Olympic athlete go back and compete," said Lai. "You're just out of practice."

But, as adults, they do have an advantage over the kids.

"Something like, 'sesquicentennial,' which I think was the last word, you just bang out. I know what that is. But everyone else is like, 'Holy moly. What am I going to do with that?''" Greenblatt said.

The two former champions did miss a few words that aren't spelled like they sound, the kinds of words seen in the Scripps national finals.

In the end, our spelling experiment reminded the adults of the pressure students face, competing for real.

"This is just for fun, but then on stage, in front of so many people, it for sure is very nerve-wracking," said Lai.

"Everyone's gotten this far. They're all champions," affirmed Greenblatt.


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