Thirteen 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.
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.
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.
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.