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County Spelling Champ Mulled Losing on Purpose at School Bee

Heritage Charter eighth-grader Giabao Tonthat wins trip to Washington for National Spelling Bee.

Updated at 9:52 a.m. March 28, 2013 

Spelling “bonspiel” correctly after three other finalists erred on other words, Giabao Tonthat of Heritage K-8 Charter School won the county spelling bee Wednesday in the fourth round.

He almost didn’t make it to the first.

“In my school spelling bee, I was the last of two—and it was my turn for the winning word,” Giabao said after collecting a trophy and dictionary from last year’s winner—national champion Snigdha Nandipati.

“And I thought about it for around 3 minutes—whether I should get it wrong or right. But I went with my gut and spelled it.”

He thus overcame his dismay at being bounced in the second round at last year’s county bee.

But the 13-year-old son of Locson and Thao Thontat of Escondido, Canadian-citizen immigrants of Vietnamese background, admits he didn’t study as hard this year.

“He was so disappointed last time. He didn’t want that to happen again,” said Lael Lloyd, his English teacher, recalling how Giabao (pronounced Ya-BOUGH) almost decided to lose on purpose.

Still, he told reporters that he studied 2 hours a day for the 44th annual U-T San Diego Countywide Spelling Bee at the Hall of Champions sports museum in Balboa Park, which drew 107 seventh- and eighth-graders—including Owen Schafer from Coronado Middle School.

The eldest of five children, Giaboa advances to the Scripps National Spelling Bee in late May in Washington, representing San Diego County.

“The Spelling Bee is one of the most time-honored of all academic competitions,” said Nicole Shina, who coordinates the bee for the San Diego County Office of Education. “It’s a nice reminder that even in a world where we’re all texting and tweeting, spelling is important.”

The other three finalists—who missed words including “sacerdotal,” (of or relating to priests or a priesthood), “brankursine” (a prickly European herb having rough, fuzzy leaves) and “presbytery” were Anastasia Heaton of Calvin Christian School, Avi Waldman of Francis Parker School and Onrei Ladao of Lemon Grove Academy.

Giabao’s mother and English teacher Lloyd embraced in their seats after he was announced the winner by bee master David Hay, an adjunct professor of English at the University of San Diego.

Then mom phoned dad, who was at work.

Lloyd said Giabao, a 4.0 student, is known at the small Escondido school as the go-to guy—“if you have a question, with any spelling or pretty much anything, it’s Giabao.”

Unlike last year’s winner, Giabao didn’t use a software program written by his father to help study.

“He will get a dictionary and literally copy words out of [it],” Lloyd said.  But “his heart wasn’t as in that much this year.”

Giabao’s father is 44 and an engineer. Mom is 34 and came to America more than 10 years ago—and taking classes part-time at Palomar College.

Among his two other brothers and two sisters are two other spelling champions—in their grade level.

Would Gialong, 10 and a fifth-grader, like to be a county spelling champ?

“Yeah, I would,” he said.

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