Son of Tongan immigrants is Hawaii’s spelling bee champ

June 10, 2021 GMT

KIHEI, Hawaii (AP) — A 13-year-old Maui boy who is a son of Tongan immigrants will represent Hawaii in the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Simione Olakauatu, a student at Lokelani Intermediate School, will be one of more than 200 youths nationwide participating in the venerable competition’s virtual preliminaries this weekend, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported Thursday. It was canceled last year because of the pandemic.

Olakauatu will turn 14 on Saturday, the same day in which he’ll compete in the first round.

“Not that many people from my country go big, and it motivates me,” he told the newspaper when asked why he decided to enter the state spelling bee. His favorite subject is math.

“Growing up I didn’t know what having an ‘F’ feels like,” he said. “I’ve always been an ‘A-B’ student.”

Because the pandemic disrupted education, only 28 schools participated in the Hawaii State Spelling Bee this year, said contest coordinator and volunteer Jennifer Yang. The local program also lost sponsors and other support.

Ofa Olakauatu, a housekeeper at The Whaler on Kaanapali Beach, recalled the family’s reaction when they found out her son won the state competition with the highest score on the timed online test.

“When I was reading the email that he won, we just look at each other and my husband was crying,” she said.

She said her son doesn’t need to be encouraged to do his schoolwork. “It’s funny because every time if he goes to the kitchen or outside he also carries his laptop to study,” she said. “Even when he eats and I say, ‘Can you leave your laptop,’ he cannot eat without it.”

His principal, Francoise Bell, said the school is “beyond proud.”

“Simione has a great personality, a lot of positive energy,” she said. “He’s just a bright light, even with everything going on this year. The kids, they’re not as energetic as they normally are, and he was always positive, always looking at the glass half-full. He’s just a pleasure to talk to and be around, and his family as well.”

He has seven siblings and wants to follow in one of his brother’s footsteps and play football at Lahainaluna High School.

In preparation for the national preliminaries, he has been studying more than 4,000 words from the Scripps study guide, website and app, in addition to the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

The final rounds of the national spelling bee will be held in July at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. The winner gets $50,000.