CARROLLWOOD — When Corbett Preparatory School headmaster Joyce Swarzman won her schoolwide spelling bee as a sixth-grader, she dreamed of going to the famed Scripps National Spelling Bee.
She never got there.
But years later, when teachers Kim Rostick and Vickie Johnson approached her with the idea of creating a schoolwide spelling bee, Swarzman saw her chance to get to the national bee.
She will see that chance materialize as sixth-grader Riju Datta, winner of the Corbett Prep bee for the past four years, represents the Tampa Bay area in the national competition, which begins Tuesday.
Rostick said having a student qualify for the national bee is a big deal at Corbett Prep, where preparing for the schoolwide bee starts early in the year with a pep rally and includes eight to 10 weeks of practice rounds in the classroom before the actual schoolwide bee of about 150 spellers.
"It has set a precedent," she said. "Other students can look at him and say, 'If he can do it, I can, too.' It starts with spelling your first words."
Riju said he spends about 12 hours a week practicing, and his teachers said his memory is phenomenal.
He even remembers the words he has spelled incorrectly each year. In third grade, it was "suite," because he got confused with the definition. In fourth grade, he got the "e" and "u" mixed up in "schadenfreude."
Riju's teachers say he is helped along by his mother, Jhumanath, who has attended each regional tournament with a laptop, typing lists of each word spelled and misspelled by each contestant, color-coded by round.
When practicing, Riju said he reads the words and studies their parts of speech, alternate pronunciations and language of origin. His favorite words have German and French roots.
"Sometimes German and French words are words that just sound fancy," he said. "Like gallimaufry. You could just say you have a lot of jumbled stuff, you wouldn't really need to say you have a gallimaufry."
Sometimes at competitions, Riju said, his palms get sweaty and his heart beats faster when he starts to spell. He said that could increase when he competes at the national level.
"Just knowing you're one of the best in the country is kind of nerve-racking," he said.
Riju's skills go beyond spelling. This year he placed in regional math competitions, a state geography bee and the state science fair, where he earned recognition for his project on Pick's theorem and dividing a polygon by its lattice points.
Allison Lester, a school coordinator for the spelling bee, said the competition will be streamed through the classrooms at Corbett. Riju's teachers have also talked about hosting a viewing party if he makes it to the finals, from 8 to 10 p.m. Thursday.
That perked up Riju.
"Wait, isn't that really late, though?" he asked.
"It's worth it. You're worth it," Rostick told him.