Words are a major part of Mark Kivimaki’s life.

The Edina 13-year-old speaks fluent French and enjoys speaking Finnish. One of his favorite pastimes is reading. According to his parents, he reads an average of two to three books a week.

He also happened to make it to the semifinals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee in May.

“[Spelling] just came naturally to me,” Mark said.

The soon-to-be eighth-grader became invested in spelling after first making it through a number of rounds in the spelling bee at Edina’s Valley View Middle School. After success at the school level, he was able to advance to the regional level. From there, Mark and four other Minnesota students made it to the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C.

As Mark kept gaining strides in spelling, his interest level was amplified, said his mother, Mary Kivimaki. Once he realized he had staying power in the rounds of the spelling bee, he started dedicating time and effort to practicing spelling.

“He was all in,” Mary Kivimaki said.

At the National Spelling Bee, Mark made it through five rounds to the semifinals. He lost in the sixth round on the word “ananke,” which means “personification of the ultimate fate that gods must yield to.”

“I was really nervous, because you really don’t know what word you were going to get,” he said.

“I wanted to make it farther,” said Mark, who tied for 32nd in the bee. However, “I was really pleased with how I did and how I placed.”

Mark and his parents credit a lot of his success to his mentor, Anja Beth Swoap, a three-time National Spelling Bee participant.

Swoap, who will be a senior at Edina High School next fall, coached Mark two to three times a week in the eight weeks between the regional and national bees, she said. During that time, the pair worked on the spelling and definition of thousands of words.

“He’s really into it,” Swoap said. While studying, Mark was not keen on asking for a break. “He loves words.”

Swoap was proud of Mark’s work in the bee, noting that it was “crazy for a first year.” Mark’s goal was to go to semifinals, and “he more than did that,” she said.

A passion for language

Mary Kivimaki believes Mark’s schooling at Normandale Elementary, a French immersion school, contributed to his talent with words. French, his second language, had to help Mark with spelling in some way, Mary Kivimaki said.

Besides French, Mark has a deep interest in the Finnish language. He is attending Salolampi Finnish Language Village in Bemidji, Minn., this summer to learn Finnish through an immersion experience. Students learn the Finnish language and culture through cuisine, sports, music and speaking the language.

He decided he wanted to learn the language at age 9 after learning that his ancestors were Finnish.

“I thought, ‘Oh, this looks fun,’ ” he said. However, he doesn’t have the opportunity to speak the language very often. “[There] aren’t many people in day-to-day life that speak [Finnish].”

It would seem that Mark simply has a knack for learning new things. When asked if any school subjects were difficult for him, he responded, “Not really. I like most subjects in school.”

‘A voracious reader’

Mark’s father, Bruce Kivimaki, said he and his wife didn’t have an active role in pushing Mark toward spelling.

“I think it comes from the fact that he’s a voracious reader,” Bruce Kivimaki said, noting that Mark reads a great deal more than what most kids his age read. “So many words, so much language.”

Some of Mark’s favorites include nonfiction works and fantasy novels, he said. He also has an interest in magazines like National Geographic, online articles and podcasts. He and his 15-year-old brother, Peter, read a print newspaper daily and the New York Times each Sunday.

What’s his favorite book?

“I’ve read so many books,” he said. “I couldn’t possibly pick a favorite.”

Mary Kivimaki, a product developer, and Bruce Kivimaki, a ninth-grade science teacher, are readers too, but not nearly as avid as Mark, they said. Mark’s involvement in the bee helped them to become more in tune with words, they said.

“I kind of started noticing words more,” Mary Kivimaki said. “It just heightens your awareness. … [We] say, ‘Oh, that could be a spelling bee [word].’ All of a sudden, words just became front and center.”

Mark, who also plays the piano and the trombone and enjoys cross-country running and track and field, has ambitions to have a career in science or engineering.

‘One word, and that’s it’

For now though, his sights are set on the National Spelling Bee in 2015. His goal is to make it to the finals.

“Now that he’s been there [the National Spelling Bee], he would love to have that experience again,” Mary Kivimaki said. But he “has to jump through all those hoops again. It’s one word, and that’s it. Miss one word, and it’s over.”

She estimated that Mark stood on stage and spelled 15 words correctly through the rounds of the bee, missing that 16th word.

Whatever he wants to do, he can count on his parents standing behind him.

Bruce Kivimaki’s hope is the same thing many parents wish for: “They grow up, they’re happy, they do what they want to do with their life. Wherever his interest takes him, we will be supportive.”

Mary Kivimaki hopes that he keeps his passion for learning.

“I’m always amazed about how really excited he is about learning something new,” she said. “He’s curious. I hope he stays that way.”


Danielle Dullinger is a University of Minnesota journalism graduate and a Twin Cities freelance writer.