WASHINGTON — Like an ex-jock who wants to stay involved in his sport, Jacob Williamson has taken on many roles in the two years since his memorable run to the finals at the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
He's been a coach to younger spellers, an official at local bees, a scout who identifies promising young talent and, at times, a vocal critic of Scripps. He's also been the loudest fan in the ballroom where the bee is contested.
"I'm the kind of person who can just sit down in front of my computer for three hours and watch a livestream of a spelling bee that I know nobody in," said Jacob, who's now 17. "I did that several times this year. I can't pin down a reason why I can do that and not just get bored."
Not all former spellers can match Jacob's level of devotion. But the spelling bee has a remarkable pull over those who've made it to the national stage. Year after year, they keep coming back.
Dozens of former spellers will be scattered throughout the live audience when the preliminary rounds of the bee begin Wednesday. Others take on official roles in the competition. The most famous ex-spellers are Jacques Bailly, the pronouncer and public face of the bee; and Paige Kimble, the bee's executive director. They won in back-to-back years: Bailly in 1980, Kimble in 1981.
Corrie Loeffler, a three-time national bee participant, is also part of Scripps' full-time bee staff, and her brother, ex-speller Paul Loeffler, does commentary for ESPN's telecast. Former champions Blake Giddens and George Thampy work as bee judges. And several former spellers will be working for the bee as part of Scripps' "college crew."
The bee is also bringing back last year's co-champions, Vanya Shivashankar and Gokul Venkatachalam, to present the trophies during its first-ever opening ceremonies.
Some former spellers say they remain involved with the bee because it had such a profound influence over their lives.
Amy Goldstein, a copy editor for ESPN the Magazine and ESPN.com, will be covering the bee for the second straight year. She finished fourth in the 1998 bee. At the time, she wrote in her biography that she wanted to design roller coasters. After the bee, she realized she was more interested in becoming a journalist or linguist.
Even before her job brought her back to the bee, Goldstein attended several times as a spectator.
"What brings me back? I love the camaraderie. I'm looking forward to catching up with old friends. It's something that I credit with helping me find a career, helping guide me," Goldstein said. "It was one of the happiest weeks of my life, so why not come back, why not relive that exciting atmosphere?"
Anamika Veeramani, the 2010 champion and now a pre-med student at Yale, will be working on the bee's social media team for the second straight year. She credits the bee for expanding her interests into entrepreneurship and filmmaking — and giving her the confidence to pursue those fields.
"Before I competed in the spelling bee, I was super shy, didn't really talk to anyone, spent a lot of time reading," Veeramani said. "After the spelling bee happened, it was like everything that I thought about myself had been changed by this external event."
Former spellers can provide unmatched insight about the competition and the spellers. Goldstein has an impressive recall of words used in previous bees. She can also spot spellers' weaknesses — last year, she correctly predicted that Dev Jaiswal, a popular speller, was about to miss a word in the finals.
Jacob uses his connections in the spelling world to scout the country for promising talent. He's part of a spelling fantasy league — no money changes hands — and he's ranked the top 122 competitors at this year's bee on a spreadsheet.
"I do a lot of research about the different spellers," Jacob said. "I definitely figure out which ones are good even before I've ever seen them spell."
He also was among those pressuring Scripps to make rule changes after the previous two bees ended in a tie. This year, the bee will use harder words at the end of the competition, a change that Jacob applauded.
"I really care about the future of the bee," Jacob said. "I think the past few years, it's been going on a downward trend."
Spellers pour their heart and soul into the bee — some for as many as five or six years. But once they reach 9th grade or turn 16, it's over, and it can leave a void.
"It's certainly very abrupt. There's also a feeling of relief, but that's rather transitory," said Rob Palmisano, a student at Duke who'll be part of this year's college crew. "You're in this period of deep reflection. Did I study enough? Did I get the most out of this that I wanted to get out of it?"