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Spelling her way to success: first black winner of championship is celebrity in Jamaica.

When Jody-Anne Maxwell returned to her native Jamaica after becoming the first Black winner of the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., she received the kind of welcome reserved for soccer stars and reggae singers. Since that time, she has become a symbol of what can be accomplished with a little hard work and a lot of determination.

No one thought the 12-year-old girl had a chance to win. After all, this was only the second time Jamaicans competed in the Scripps-Howard finals. But when Maxwell began to leave her competitors in the dust, the audience and judges began to take notice. When it was all over, she was the first non-American to win the championship title.

"I knew in my mind I'd spelled the word right, but I was in shock," Maxwell says of her winning moment. She defeated 248 contestants and took home the $10,000 grand prize. Not bad for a girl who was "coerced" to enter her school's spelling program two years ago.

After weeks of public adulation, Maxwell's life has pretty much returned to normal. The prize money has been put into a trust fund, and the trophy is prominently displayed in the family home. Winning at the highest level has rendered her ineligible to compete in any more spelling bees, but she is part of the team helping her school's current champion train for the Jamaican nationals. As a straight-A student, she was exempted from taking final exams.

As "head girl" of her class at Ardenne High School in St. Andrew, Maxwell wasn't enthusiastic when told her duties included participating in the spelling bee. The headmistress didn't give her much choice: If she refused, she would be stripped of her "head girl" status, Maxwell reluctantly obliged and, much to her own surprise, rose to the occasion. "When Jody-Anne started to spell, she developed a love for words," says her father, Lloyd Maxwell.

That love of words impressed her spelling coach, the Rev. Glen Archer, who told her father she had enough talent to win the Nationals. He wasn't surprised; the Maxwell household is full of spelling champions. Jody-Anne's oldest sister, Janice, was Jamaica's National Spelling Bee Champion in 1990; another sister, Karen, was an interschool champion.

Maxwell went on to win the St. Andrew Parish Spelling Bee and the All-Island Spelling Bee. As Jamaica's best speller, she qualified to compete in the finals against students from North America, Mexico, Europe and the Caribbean. She spent eight months training, studying over 400,000 words for up to five hours a day. "She's a hard-working, organized individual," her father says proudly. "She requires very little supervision."

Most children would be terrified at the thought of competing with the world's best spellers. Not Jody-Anne Maxwell. "I made it clear that she was not going to Washington, D.C., to become a champion," says her father. "She was already champion of Jamaica. I told her to meet some nice kids and have fun."

Maxwell who admits that she was nervous when the competition began, managed to keep a poker face. For each word, she calmly asked the pronouncer for a definition, language of origin, part of speech and use in a sentence. That technique helped her sail through the first 10 rounds. For Maxwell, the stress of competing didn't kick is until the last round. "It wasn't until that point that I started to see the light," she says.

By correctly spelling chiaroscurist (an artist who produces the illusion of depth with light and shades), Maxwell won the title and caught the attention of college recruiters. She is mulling over several scholarship offers, including a full scholarship to the University of the West Indies. Maxwell plans to earn her undergraduate degree in Jamaica and study corporate law overseas.

In her spare time, the young champion likes to read, watch wrestling and listen to gospel and contemporary music. She enjoys going to church, and credits her faith with her victory.

"When I look back I can say that it was only God." says Maxwell. "I went there with most of the odds against me, struggling with the pronunciations, standing under the hot lights in front of all those people ... it's only God."
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Title Annotation:Judy-Anne Maxwell wins 1998 National Spelling Bee
Date:Oct 1, 1998
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