Image: Jenn Duncan

The year was 2015. The word, “ohmmeter,” also known as an instrument for measuring electrical resistance. All Grace Walters, then 13, had to do was spell it correctly, and she would be crowned the 2015 Association of Christian Schools International champion. “My previous rival had gone out, and I thought, Oh, I have this in the bag,” Walters, now 18, recalls. “I left out an M.”

A top performer in the ACSI circuit—a league for fifth-to-eighth-grade private-school students—Walters had dreamed of being named champion ever since the second grade. But now her dream was squashed, thwarted, stymied.

The hours of studying Merriam-Webster, listing her beloved Greek and Latin stems and roots, and being quizzed by her mom, Pamela, each night before bed had been for naught, zilch, nowt. And as an eighth grader heading to Conroe’s Covenant Christian School in the fall, with no serious options for competing again on the horizon, the Magnolia teen was, in a word, she says today, “heartbroken.”

Covenant Christian’s competitive art program was exciting, sure. She could—and later would—become the school’s mascot. The options were endless, really, and without spelling, she’d have time to explore them. But her dream just wouldn’t die. “I thought, I’m still passionate about this, and I still have a dream that wasn’t fulfilled,” she remembers. Then one afternoon it struck her: She would coach.

So it was that Walters, still only 13, reached out to a friend from the spelling-bee circuit, Rohan Rajeev, a sixth-grader from Oklahoma who had a lot of potential. The teen and tween struck up a partnership, using phone and video calls to talk stems, problem words, and the art of confidence on the stage a few times a week. Eleven months later Rajeev found himself in the final round of the ACSI championship, where he beat out 42 other qualifiers, tackling his final word, “apothem,” for the win.

The following year, 2017, the duo decided to enter the highly competitive Scripps competition in Maryland, whose national finals are broadcast each May on ESPN (they’re canceled this month because of the coronavirus). Rajeev beat out hundreds of qualifiers and a few well-known spelling champs to place second on live, primetime TV—landing himself a $30,000 scholarship and instantly placing Walters in high demand. “I honestly thought I would just coach Rohan because he was a friend, and I would find some other competition to be a part of,” Walters says. “But after he placed second, there were a lot of people asking, and I thought maybe I should make it a full-time thing.”

Since then Walters has begun to work as a paid coach, taking on four or five students each year from coast to coast, while refining her mentoring methods and continuing to make her mark at Scripps. She video-chats with students in the evenings, supplementing their daily studying with her own guides, lists, and quizzes. She also joins her students’ families at qualifying bees whenever possible, cheering them on from the audience. But her secret weapon is the way she relates to her students, often fielding texts and emails from them throughout the day. “One of my students described my coaching as a 24/7 spelling hotline,” she laughs. “I thought it was funny, but that’s kind of how we work.” 

The process allows Walters to figure out how each competitor prepares best. Are they “memorization machines,” as she calls them, or are they more like her, fascinated by Greek and Latin roots? Do they prefer to type their words out, or keep it all in their heads? Do they struggle with stage fright and maintaining mental stamina? Can they get a bit overzealous?

Walters’s approach may be time-consuming, but it works. In 2018 one of her students, Karthik Nemmani, spelled the word “koinonia” correctly and won the gleaming Scripps Cup—a first for both pupil and teacher. Afterward, as confetti streamed through the air, he turned to an ESPN reporter and credited Walters by name.

Fast-forward to last year: The coach, who’d just graduated high school, had three students in an unprecedented five-round Scripps national spell-off. After preliminary rounds, a vocabulary test, and a four-hour final competition, Scripps made the historic decision to allow its first- ever eight-way tie. All three of Walters’s students were named co-champions. “My dream is fulfilled and more,” she says today. “It’s so much better than it would have been if I had just won it myself.”

Now a freshman at Rice University, Walters is putting her love of language to a new use, pursuing a linguistics degree, while continuing to coach would-be spelling-bee champs and hoping that this year’s nationals will be rescheduled. And while she won’t offer predictions or divulge who she’s working with, Walters does coyly admit, “Typically I know who I’m going to work with before they have even contacted me.”

That’s partly because as the most sought-after coach in the field these days, she essentially gets first pick. But there’s something else to it, too. “There is one common thread between all of my students who have done well, and it is that champion spirit. It consists of dedication, passion, and that dream,” says Walters.

“There is a difference between a student wanting to win because they love language and because they want to show that to the world, and a kid whose parent is pushing them to do it. I know when I see a student with that dream that we will do well together. Because I had that dream. I know how it is to long to win the bee.”

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