Edina teen falls under the spell of words

  • Article by: DANIELLE DULLINGER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 24, 2014 - 2:02 PM

An Edina 13-year-old's gifts extend well beyond the spelling skills that landed him in this year's National Spelling Bee.

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In addition to being a National Spelling Bee-worthy speller, Mark Kivimaki is also a natural in languages and a voracious reader.

Photo: KYNDELL HARKNESS • kyndell.harkness@startribune.com,

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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.

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