Arizona’s top speller talks about bees, spelling words she’s never heard

Penda Ba, left, is congratulated by Bobbie O’Boyle, right, executive director of the Arizona Educational Foundation, after winning the Arizona State Spelling Bee on March 25. Penda is a student at Sossaman Middle School in Queen Creek. (Special to the Independent/Arizona Educational Foundation)


Penda Ba had never heard the word “gigue” until the final round of the Arizona State Spelling Bee. Even so, the eighth-grader aced its spelling to win the state championship.

On March 25, she out-spelled 26 competitors to win the state event, which is hosted by the Arizona Educational Foundation in Phoenix.

(Read related story)

(Read about how Penda Ba did at the National Spelling Bee)

Penda attends Sossaman Middle School, 18655 Jacaranda Blvd. in Queen Creek. The 13-year-old drew on her experience from competing in earlier bees to determine the spelling of the word that, according to, is pronounced “ˈzheeg” and means “a lively dance movement (as of a suite) having compound triple rhythm and composed in fugal style.”

In the 29th round of the competition, she asked the judges for the word’s language of origin. That one question marked a turning point in her success.

“So the language of origin really helped because I was about to say ‘J-I-G-U-E,’ but I know there aren’t a lot of words that start with ‘J’ in French so I changed it to a ‘G’ and so that’s how I won,” Penda said during an interview.

Penda is the second student from the Higley Unified School District to win the state title. In 2014, Nila Dhinaker from Cooley Middle School won the Arizona bee, according to a press release.

Road to success

Penda has competed in spelling bees since she attended fourth-grade at San Tan Elementary School, which like Sossaman, is in the Higley school district.

She began competing after her fourth-grade teacher, Mr. Seiferth, told her she had an aptitude for spelling.

The road to the state championship was not a smooth one.

In fourth-grade, she won the school bee, beating out students in fourth, fifth and sixth grades, but she did not place in the district competition.

She did not compete in fifth grade, but tried the following year. Once again, she won the school bee, but not the district.

Undaunted, Penda tried again in seventh-grade, when she won the school and district bees and placed fifth in the regional bee, the level before the state championship. She won the HUSD spelling bee in January and became the Maricopa Region 6 spelling bee champion on Feb. 23, earning her a spot at the state event.

The spelling bee veteran said taking the time to think before she speaks is a skill she has acquired from competing, She also starts preparing sooner for the competitions rather than waiting until the last minute.

She receives help from her father, whom she considers her coach, and friends; takes spelling tests on; and studies the dictionary.

“I look at words in the dictionary because during intermediate rounds the judges give you random words from the dictionary,” said Penda, who loves movies and reading, and is a member of the National Junior Honor Society and her school’s student council and art club.

She said, like “gigue,” she had not heard any of the other random words the judges asked her to spell during the state event.

Eric Seiferth said Penda, whom he remembered as always having a smile on her face, has a natural ability for spelling. He said he is impressed with her growth as a competitor over the past few years.

“What I think she learned over time is to slow down,” Mr. Seiferth said during a phone interview. “She probably remembers (in fourth grade) she rushed through the district bee, where she was eliminated. She didn’t have the polished skills. I remember she rushed through it and I was like, ‘noooooooo.’

“The year she won the school spelling bee as a fourth-grader, I thought, what an amazing moment,” he continued. “She’s going up against fifth- and sixth-graders and she won. Seeing her growth as an eight-grader is remarkable.”

The night of the state spelling bee, Mr. Seiferth and his wife followed Penda’s progress on Twitter.

“My wife would update us, ‘It’s round 25. It’s finally the 29th round. She won!’” Mr. Seiferth said. “We all cheered and high-fived.”

The Sossaman eighth-grader said, despite her losses, she kept competing in the earlier spelling bees because she believes in perseverance. It’s a trait she admires and is possessed by one of her heroes, author J.K. Rowling, who wrote the Harry Potter series.

“She really persevered. She was turned down over and over and over again and now she’s ended up being the most successful, richest author in the world,” said Penda, who added she respects the writer’s attention to detail and storylines that relate to kids’ lives.

Scripps national bee

As the state’s top speller, Penda received $800 cash, a Webster’s Third New International Dictionary and an all-expenses paid trip for two to Washington, D.C. for the 90th Annual Scripps National Spelling Bee, May 28-June 3. Once there, she will compete against 270 top spellers from across the U.S.

Penda lived in the nation’s capital until she was 3, when the family moved to Arizona, she said. Now, they will gather again in their former hometown to support the teenager at the national bee.
Penda’s father said during an interview he is not her coach, but just a dad doing what every dad does — trying to help out his daughter.

Mr. Ba, who asked that his first name not be used, said his wife was so nervous during the state event that she had to leave the room. He added his nerves kicked in when the competition was down to his daughter and her final opponent.

“At one point it was unbearable and I had to leave,” he said, noting he was not in the room when Penda spelled the winning word.

“We heard clapping and came back into the room to find Penda had won,” Mr. Ba said.

Is Penda nervous about competing in Washington, D.C.?

“Oh, yah,” she admitted with a laugh, “but excited,” she added.

She said she was nervous about the state event, too, but managed to block out her nerves during the competition.

“I was shaking when I was seated, but kept taking deep breaths, which helped out. But when I went up to the microphone I lost all that nervousness. I don’t know why,” Penda said.

During the next two months, she will balance spelling practice with spending time with friends and looking forward to visiting Washington, D.C. landmarks such as Mount Vernon, the home of George and Martha Washington; and the Lincoln Memorial.

She will also practice positive thinking.

“I take deep breaths. I like to tell myself I can do it and I imagine my winning word,” she said.

Penda’s dad said if anyone can win the national bee it’s his daughter, whom he called “tenacious.”

“When she wants something, she goes for it,” Mr. Ba said. “Last year she said she really wanted to win the state title and she did it.”

Editor’s note: A broadcast of the 2017 Arizona State Spelling Bee will air at 8 p.m. Friday, April 21, on Arizona PBS, Channel 8.


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