In the world of competitive spellers, Sylvie Lamontagne is known as a juggernaut. She placed fourth in last year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee, and ninth in 2015. Last summer, she traveled to California and won the Spelling Bee of China’s North America Spelling Champion Challenge, a contest for kids in the United States and China.
Now that the 14-year-old from Denver is no longer eligible to compete in this week’s National Spelling Bee at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in Maryland — which is televised on ESPN and often turns kids like Sylvie into momentary celebrities — she’s focusing on a new vocation: spelling bee coach.
Sylvie’s rate? $200 an hour.
Hiring coaches isn’t new. But bee aficionados say a recent surge in competition, and a tightening of rules meant to limit co-champions, has spawned a demand for younger coaches such as Sylvie: high-schoolers or college kids, months or just a few years into their bee retirement, who can pass along fresh intelligence on words to memorize and how to decode bizarre words based on their language of origin.
“As the spelling bee gets more and more difficult, there are people working harder and harder every year,” Sylvie said. “There are definitely people in the last couple years who are using coaches to get to the finals.”
Earlier this year, Brainsy, a District-based software company, launched a website offering the coaching services of several recent spelling stars. In addition to Sylvie, Brainsy’s coaching network boasts: Snigdha Nandipati, the 2012 champion and a Yale freshman; Cooper Komatsu, a high school freshman from Los Angeles, who placed seventh last year; Dev Jaiswal, who nabbed fourth place in 2015; and Amber Born, 18, a high school senior, who got fourth place in 2013.
They all charge $200 an hour on the Brainsy site, or between $100 and $110 for the half-hour, except for two instructors who charge between $50 and $60 for an hour and $30 for the half-hour.
“We are coming straight out of the bee and have the most direct contact to what it’s like being up there on stage,” Nandipati said. “Everyone going to the National Spelling Bee now wants to go one step further, so they’re reaching out to former spellers, getting in their shoes, figuring out what they did. Some of those tips come down to how you’re able to compose yourself on stage. It’s gotten way more competitive since my time. If I was competing now, I wouldn’t last long.”
The parents of Kelly Mills, 13, a seventh-grader from West Virginia competing at this year’s bee, spent $110 for a half-hour session with Lamontagne. “Originally, I thought it was kind of expensive, but for all the advice she gave, it was well worth it,” Kelly said. “She gave me a few good tips on how to spell words you’ve never heard of before based on language patterns and root words.”
So far, the service has attracted a small handful of clients, including Edith Fuller, the 6-year-old home-schooled student from Oklahoma, who is competing in this year’s bee as the contest’s youngest-ever contestant. She actually qualified for the bee earlier this year when she was only 5, but she has since celebrated a birthday.
The founder of Brainsy, John Miao, gave Edith free lessons because she’s so young, he said. His 16-year-old daughter, Bernadette Miao, who placed 50th in the bee in 2015, has given Edith 45-minute weekly tutoring sessions since March.
“Bernadette emphasized that we need to prioritize studying the definition of the words,” said Edith’s father, Justin Fuller, an engineer. “Also, when you have someone outside your normal sphere who is cheering you on — that helps you do better.”
Paige Kimble, the National Spelling Bee’s executive director, was coached by her parents and one of her teachers — free.
“The idea of someone going to a platform, selecting a coach and a rate, that is new,” said Kimble, the 1980 runner-up and 1981 champ. “There are people who say, ‘I’ve reached the upper echelons of this pursuit, I’ve got some disposable income . . . and then there are the entrepreneurs who know it, see it, and are racing to meet that need.”
Scott Remer, 23, who grew up in the Cleveland suburbs and tied for fourth in the 2008 bee, believes he might have been among the very first of young bee retirees to carve out a coaching business. In 2009, a fellow speller from the Cleveland area who was one year younger than he asked for his help. He obliged, pro bono. The next year, his student, Anamika Veeramani, won the whole thing.
Since then, Remer has published a popular bee guidebook, “Words of Wisdom,” and he has coached three to five elite spellers per year at a rate of $80 an hour.
“I have statistics, based on historical trends, that break down the National Spelling Bee’s word lists by language of origin, and we try to spend an amount of time on each language proportionate to the frequency with which words from that language appear,” said Remer, now studying for a master’s degree in England. “The goal is to be flexible enough, and to have accrued enough words in your memory bank, and enough understanding of how language patterns work, to be able to spell words even if you have never heard of them before.”
Miao said he hatched the idea for the coaching network after the 2015 co-winner, Vanya Shivashankar, publicly thanked Scott Isaacs, the 1989 bee winner, for quizzing and advising her.
He reached out to the schools of recent top contenders, signing up kid coaches one by one, and helped set the rates.
“I felt $200 for an hour was reasonable. I looked and compared to other coaches. The beauty of the site is that it allows these teenagers to monetize their expertise, make some money, and use it for colleges and brand themselves on social media,” Miao said.
The Brainsy coaches, for the most part, charge more than Isaacs, who asks for $100 an hour. But they are considerably cheaper than the tutors available through Hexco, a Texas-based company that sells books of word lists to bee contestants and, for the past 10 years, has offered personal coaches.
For eight one-hour sessions with a Hexco coach? $2,100. Sixteen tete-a-tetes cost $3,450.
The demand is high. Hexco has a stable of 13 coaches, who get paid $55 per hour.
The company’s president, Linda Tarrant, said she’s recently hired younger coaches who placed high in the bee, such as Gokul Venkatachalam, the other co-champion from 2015, and Snehaa Ganesh Kumar, the 2016 runner-up.
Mills, the West Virginia contestant at this year’s bee, said she wants the half-hour with Lamontagne to pay off.
“I am hoping I can make it to the top 50,” Mills said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to Scott Isaacs as Vanya Shivashankar’s coach. He quizzed and advised her before the 2015 spelling bee.