Spelling Champion With Down Syndrome Defies Stereotypes
HONOLULU — That 13-year-old Ellen Ruckmann-Bruch has won Honolulu Waldorf School’s annual spelling bee two years in a row, is fluent in German along with English and has run three virtual marathons makes her unusual.
That she’s done all of these things and more with Down syndrome makes her unique, at least in Hawaii.
In December, Ellen was the top speller at her school, outlasting 50 of her schoolmates over 29 rounds in the school spelling bee. She correctly spelled out loud such words as “mischievous” and “desecration” before finally winning with “tostones” (a Latin American dish of sliced and fried plantains). Now she’s preparing for the Jan. 27 district spelling bee, a preliminary to the state and national Scripps Spelling Bee competitions.
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Ellen also won the school title in 2022, besting 64 of her classmates in about nine rounds. That qualified her for the Honolulu district spelling bee in 2023, where she finished in eighth place.
Ellen, an enthusiastically conversational eighth grader who lives in Manoa, said she loves spelling because “I love words. They’re like my second companion, besides these lovely parents of mine,” she said, to embarrassed chuckles from her dads, Rudiger Ruckmann and Ben Bruch.
Spelling, Ellen said, “helps my brain get control of the words. And if my brain controls the words, it builds me up and keeps me branching out, like a tree branching out” to learn more about the world, she added, spreading her arms wide.
People sometimes ask whether Ellen has been given easier words or has been told ahead of time which words she would have to spell in competition. But the answer is no: Ellen has been assigned words randomly selected from the same list used for all the competing spellers, Bruch said. She has received no special accommodations or exceptions to the rules — “this was a straight-up level playing field,” he said.
Jennifer Yang, Hawaii State Spelling Bee coordinator and volunteer, said she doesn’t know of any spelling-bee winners with Down syndrome in school, district or state preliminaries in Hawaii for the Scripps National Spelling Bee. “We only know of Ellen! … Since my involvement from 2017, this is the first of our knowledge of any children with Down syndrome participating,” Yang said.
A spokesperson for the Scripps National Spelling Bee said the organization is not aware of any past spellers with Down syndrome who have reached the national competition level.
Corrie Loeffler, executive director of the Scripps national competition, said in an emailed statement, “Congratulations to Ellen, from all of us at the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Winning a school bee represents a tremendous achievement and commitment to learning. We wish her good luck in the next level of competition and can’t wait to follow along on her spelling journey — we have no doubt she’ll use the words she’s learned to shine her light on the world!”
Down syndrome is a condition in which a person is born with an extra chromosome. It can cause cognitive disability, developmental delays and physical challenges, but the severity can vary from one person to the next.
Ellen loved words even as a baby and has “always had a gleam in her eye,” Ruckmann said. Her parents started reading to her in her infancy. By the sixth grade she was measured reading at a ninth grade level, he said, and she attends general-education classes at Waldorf. Since she has always scored well on spelling tests, Ellen’s parents figured the spelling bee would be a good fit and signed her up.
All three say they’ve kept preparations for the contests light and fun. A binder with 52 pages containing thousands of words, from the national spelling bee, lies on the dining table, and Ellen browses at will during breakfast before school. During family walks and during car rides, Bruch recalls words that have tripped up Ellen in the past, and quizzes her:
“Let’s try ‘entrepreneur,'” Bruch says, to demonstrate.
“E-n-t-r-e-p-r-e-n-e-u-r,” Ellen enunciates smoothly.
She breezes also through “Einstein,” “flabbergast” and “fashionista,” as well as her favorite word of the moment, “grotesqueness.”
During the most recent spelling bee, Ruckmann, who happens to be Honolulu Waldorf’s fundraising projects’ adviser and special assistant to the head of school, said he was so nervous for Ellen that he stayed home and waited for updates via texts from Bruch. When he learned that Ellen had won again, he stood outside and sobbed.
For the family, Ellen’s victories represent triumphs over discrimination. Ellen said she has been told that “I don’t count as a person, when that’s not true,” she said. “‘Oh, you have Down syndrome — are you smart?’ Of course I’m smart. ‘Are you strong, do you have muscles, do you have a brain?’ … They just try to bring you down.”
“When people get to know her, she’s like every other kid,” Ruckmann said of his daughter. Ellen, whose chief loves include Taylor Swift music, dragonfruit juice, gymnastics and goats, learned German since both of her parents speak it. She’s thrice earned her “Finisher” shirt for the virtual version of the Honolulu Marathon by covering about a mile a day for about a month.
Ellen said she enjoys advocating for herself and other students. “If they have Down syndrome or they have any other problems, they can come to me for any advice, and I can help them,” she said.
The three didn’t set out to become advocates for people with Down syndrome, Ruckmann said, but have evolved into the roles over time. “We’re just a normal family trying to live our lives and be contributors. With our own journeys becoming a couple and becoming parents … the reason we’ve kind of gone public is to offer families hope.”
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