FORT WORTH -- When Mark De Los Santos was 3 years old, his parents noticed that he had an unusual talent.
"He would spell his classmates' names -- their full names," said his mother, Margaret De Los Santos. "When he was 4 years old, he could spell dinosaur names."
By the second grade, Mark was entering area spelling contests, hoping to one day make it to the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C.
On Tuesday, at the seasoned age of 11, Mark saw his goal become reality.
Shortly before noon, Mark correctly spelled phenomenal in the 34th round of the Star-Telegram's Regional Spelling Bee, beating out 29 other spellers and earning a spot in the national bee.
"I just feel tired," Mark said, smiling widely. "I'm just shocked that I actually won."
Shocked because, in the 31st round, Mark misspelled Pollyanna and felt sure that the remaining competitor, Sijil Patel, 14, a student at Heritage Middle School in Colleyville, would get the next word right and that he would be out. "I thought it was already over," said Mark, a sixth-grader at Holy Rosary Catholic School in Arlington.
As Mark sat on the stage with his head down, he heard the judge's bell ding, indicating that Patel had misspelled her word, ritziness.
Suddenly, Mark was back in the bee.
Mark spelled huckaback and then caught another break when Patel misspelled shenanigan.
All Mark needed to do now was spell the next word correctly and he would win $200, a first-place trophy and an all-expenses-paid trip to the national bee. When the pronouncer, Cynthia Walters Fuller, called out the word phenomenal, Mark said he could hardly contain his happiness. That one was easy, he said.
"I was so engrossed with excitement," he said.
A moment later, Mark was named regional champion -- an accomplishment that brought applause from the crowd inside the Roundup Inn at Will Rogers Memorial Center. "All that hard work paid off," his mother said. "He did an amazing job, and we are so proud of him."
Those on the three-judge panel said they were impressed with this year's spellers but pointed out that the competition is about more than spelling.
"This is thinking on your feet, having stage awareness and stage presence," said Judge Linda Lee, a retired teacher. "That is the most important part of the spelling bee, in my opinion. They were wonderful. They were very composed. It didn't appear they were nervous at all."
More than 700 students from schools in Tarrant, Parker, Wise, Palo Pinto, Hood, Jack, Johnson, Bosque, Brown, Hamilton and Erath counties participate in the Star-Telegram's spelling bee program, which began over 30 years ago.
Students qualify for the Star-Telegram's Regional Spelling Bee by winning their school bee and then their district or area bee.
Mark said he competed in the area bee three times before finally making it to this year's regionals. On Monday, the night before the competition, Mark said he had trouble falling asleep.
"Words were just floating in my head," he said.
During Tuesday's bee, Mark spelled more than 20 words, including cognition, sayonara, chipotle, elixir, provolone, koan, synchronous and azimuth.
Mark said he has been studying on weekends and through spring break.
"I would study a certain letter, and my mom would test me all over it, and then I would have a 15-minute break for snacks or whatever, and then I would go back to studying," he said, explaining how he worked his way through the alphabet.
Mark, who said he wants to be a doctor when he grows up, said the studying was exhausting but worth it.
"I knew I would reap the benefits afterward -- if I won," he said.
MELODY M cDONALD, 817-390-7386