Sarah Fernandes, a student at St. Stephen the Martyr School in Omaha, competes last year at a regional spelling bee. COURTESY PHOTO


Spelling bee wiz includes prayer in her strategy

When Sarah Fernandes walks up to the microphone next week at the Scripps National Spelling Bee, she’ll have a plan ready.

First she’ll listen for her word.

Then she’ll repeat it back out loud.

She’ll ask all the questions she’s allowed: What’s the definition of the word? What’s the word’s etymology, its historical origin? How is it used grammatically in a sentence (noun, verb, adjective … )? Sometimes the answers to those questions will trigger her memory if she’s come across the word before.

Sarah will think about spelling patterns she might remember from similar words.

Then she’ll close her eyes to block out distractions, visualize the spelling of the word, and say aloud each letter.

At age 12 and a spelling bee veteran, Sarah has developed a routine that has been successful for her – taking her through school, local and regional competitions and last year all the way to the finals of the national spelling bee.

But there’s another important part to her ritual. Before she even walks up to the microphone, Sarah will have a conversation with God, a quick prayer for help and guidance.

“I always say a prayer because God is in the center of my mind when I’m on the stage, because He’s the One Who controls everything,” Sarah said in a recent interview.

Sarah poses for a photo after winning last year’s regional spelling bee. COURTESY PHOTO

Prayer is an important part of daily life for Sarah – who just completed sixth grade at St. Stephen the Martyr School in Omaha – and for her family, which includes her parents, Praveen Fernandes and Sharmila Braganza, and sisters Rachel and Hannah.

Sarah, her sisters and mother will be traveling to the Washington, D.C., area on May 26 to participate in a week’s worth of “bee week” activities for the competitors and their guests.

The family will bring with them the prayers of supporters in the archdiocese, including those at St. Stephen the Martyr Parish and School.

The 245 spellers who will be at the national bee hail from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Department of Defense schools in Europe and from the Bahamas, Canada and Guam.

Last year Sarah became one of 11 finalists in the country, and at age 11 was the youngest.

Sarah’s performance last year seemed like a miracle, Braganza, her mother, said.

In the first rounds of competition spellers can get words they don’t know and be eliminated early. But last year things seemed to fall into place for Sarah, Braganza said.

In the final round, the word “leguleian” eventually tripped her up.

To prepare for this year’s national spelling bee, she’s been studying a list of words and perusing the dictionary to learn more words and their meanings.

The first words to be spelled at the national competition are “extremely hard, so they give you material for those,” Sarah said.

Since 2021, the Scripps bee has added vocabulary into the competition. Sarah said that has made the spelling bee even more difficult.

“You have to spend a lot of time with words to get really good,” her mother said. “People who go to the very end, they spend a lot of time, hours, for years.”

Sarah is pictured with her mother, Sharmila Braganza. SUSAN SZALEWSKI/STAFF

On some days Sarah will study for hours, but spelling isn’t her only focus. Sarah is an accomplished pianist who competes internationally.

“So she spends a considerable amount of time practicing and learning her pieces,” Braganza said.

When she’s not practicing spelling or piano playing, Sarah enjoys reading, writing poetry, drawing and befriending stray cats in her neighborhood, who’ve enjoyed listening to her play piano.

Sarah has a unique musical gift, her mother said. “She has what is called perfect pitch,” being able to determine a note just by hearing it, a gift that began when she was just a toddler.

She could play parts of songs she heard her older sisters practice. Sarah began formal lessons in 2016, when she was just 4. At age 8, she began entering competitions, and at 9 competed internationally.

Sarah has performed before audiences in Omaha, Chicago, and at age 10, New York City’s renowned Carnegie Hall.

She’s also used her talents closer to home, playing for a Veteran’s Day assembly at school and at a prayer service at church.

Sarah mostly plays classical music. But she said she also likes hymns, “especially hymns that I heard at Mass, because they kind of stick in my memory.”

Sarah has learned to improvise and create her own music, including a piece she called “A Prayer for America.”

One obstacle Sarah won’t have to face at the national spelling bee is stage fright.

“I actually really like being on stage,” she said, “and this connects to piano. I love performing on stages and spelling on stages because I love being in front of audiences while sharing my talents and what I’ve learned.”

“But the thing about spelling that’s really unique,” she said, “is that you’re not the only one on the stage. There’s actually a whole group of other people with you.”

Sarah said she likes St. Stephen the Martyr School because it’s Catholic but also because it stresses academics. Her favorite subjects are math and science.

Sarah isn’t the only champion speller in her family. Her sister Hannah, now 17, preceded her at the national competition, earning a spot in 2017 as a fourth-grader. In 2021, as an eighth-grader, she also qualified but participated remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

For years Hannah and Sarah have been dominating spelling bees for Omaha-area Catholic schools, with one continuous win streak for the family.

Their older sister Rachel, who just graduated from Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart in Omaha, is no slacker, either. She was one of nine students selected by The Omaha World-Herald for its All-State Academic Team. On college entrance exams, she earned a perfect ACT score of 36 and a nearly perfect SAT score (1560 out of 1600).

Next fall she’ll be studying chemistry at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, on a pre-med track.

But for at least the coming week, it’s Sarah’s time to shine.

Her fans might be able to watch her compete at the national spelling bee, with the semifinal and final rounds scheduled to be televised May 29 and 30, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. CDT on Ion Television.



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