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Champ’s next stop: national spelling bee

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SPRING VALLEY — How do you spell “winner”? C-H-R-I-S-T-I-A-N.

Christian Antonio, a seventh-grader at Santa Sophia Academy, will represent San Diego County this July at the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee in Orlando.

On March 17, he won the 51st annual San Diego Union-Tribune Countywide Spelling Bee with his correct spelling of “huipil,” a garment worn by women in Mexico and Central America. He was one of 37 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders participating in the competition, which was conducted via Zoom.

He is the second Catholic school student in the Diocese of San Diego to win the countywide spelling bee in the past five years. Ella Peters of Notre Dame Academy was the 2016 winner.

“We just wanted it to be a positive experience for Christian. We weren’t even really talking too much about winning,” said Christian’s father, Marvin, who along with his wife, Valerie, watched the spelling bee competition live.

He and Valerie simply hoped their 12-year-old son would be satisfied with his performance. For about a month, Christian devoted about an hour every weekday and six to eight hours every weekend to studying the list of 4,000 words that he had received from the organizers of the spelling bee.

Valerie said she was “nervous and jittery” during the competition, which ultimately went 13 rounds during a Zoom call that lasted almost four and a half hours.

“I’m glad my hard work paid off, and I’m very excited to participate in the national spelling bee,” said Christian, who has been a student at Santa Sophia Academy, his father’s alma mater, since kindergarten.

The day before the spelling bee, the school community assembled in the quad to wish Christian good luck, said Julianna Genna, fourth grade teacher and vice principal. When she heard the following day that he had won, she returned to the quad and screamed the good news “at the top of my lungs.”

“Every class could hear me and, slowly, an eruption of cheers and applause could be heard from every classroom. It was unreal.”

When the spelling bee champion returned on March 19, faculty and students surprised him with a standing ovation, festive decorations, and handmade cards and posters.

“He came through the back office door thinking he was just going to walk to his classroom,” said Genna. “Instead, he was greeted by the entire school with screams and cheers.”

Kathleen Zuñiga, a teacher and the spelling bee coordinator at Santa Sophia Academy, praised Christian’s “dedication, hard work and perseverance.”

“Since Christian is an excellent student in all ways, his victory was not a complete surprise,” she said. “It is a beautiful example to others of how hard work and studying can pay off.”

Christian also earned kudos from the diocesan Office for Schools.

“He embodies what it means to be a Catholic school student in the Diocese of San Diego,” said Dr. Julie Cantillon, the office’s associate director. “He has shown that he is hardworking, determined and a responsible, faith-filled student.”

When he isn’t learning to spell challenging and obscure words, Christian also enjoys such activities as playing tennis and guitar, solving Rubik’s Cubes, and experiencing international travel with his family.

To would-be spelling bee champions, he offers this advice: “Work hard and always try to make it fun for yourself.”

He also counsels prayer and placing one’s trust in God.

“He’ll always be there for you” – even during spelling bees.

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