ELIZABETH, Illinois — The small and unlikely town of Elizabeth, Illinois, might just have a national champion in its midst.
Quinten Atutis is an eighth-grader with a talent that requires great determination and memorization: spelling. Most days, you can find him at home practicing his spelling as his mom, LeAnne, plays pronouncer.
"We go through the whole list," Quinten said. "Then, we go back to the ones I got wrong and try to get those ones right."
He’s got a lot of spelling to do before this summer, when he'll travel to Washington, D.C. to represent Northwestern Illinois at the 2022 Scripps National Spelling Bee.
Reading doesn’t come easy to Quinten, but spelling is a piece of C-A-K-E. His strategy for the harder spelling words:
"Most of the time, I'm using words from other words or letters which would make more sense to me," he said.
LeAnne is her son's No. 1 fan, but she’s also his spelling coach.
"He just kept saying, 'this is my last year,'" LeAnne said. "'I want to, like, go all the way.' And he really worked hard for it."
But behind all that hard work was a reminder that fate can sometimes be cruel. It was losing athletic abilities that made Quinten discover his spelling talents in the first place.
It was last year when Quinten was forced to learn a new word, CRMO.
"I was just playing football," Quinten said, "And the first couple practices, I started realizing that my legs were hurting a lot — like way more than they've ever hurt before."
CRMO, or chronic recurrent multifocal osteomyelitis, is a disease where the body mistakenly attacks healthy tissue and organs. Symptoms usually start in kids at about the age of 10, according to Columbia University’s Irving Medical Center.
"There’s no cure," he said. "It's an immune disorder."
The once-healthy teenager was forced to learn to use wheelchairs and crutches to get around, and with the pain in his legs came other challenges.
"It just changed almost overnight," LeAnne said. "I was genuinely concerned what he was going to fill his time with because it (was) only sports."
Baseball, basketball and football were suddenly no longer an option for Quinten. Even his upstairs bedroom was off-limits due to mobility issues.
"He's had almost 40 appointments since August," LeAnne said.
But despite the physical challenges, Quinten found a way to fight through. Spelling became his solace. He used it to fill days cooped up inside and hours spent in the car going to and from medical appointments.
"I don't know that he would be as passionate about (spelling) right now had sports still been a part of it," his mom said. "The spelling bee has, like, really kind of filled that."
Quinten is now among the nation's top young spellers. He'll compete against them all June 1 at the semifinals and, if he moves on, June 2 at the finals.
"I feel accomplished," Quinten said. "But … I still want to get on the stage. And once I get up there what happens, happens."
The only word you can’t ask him to spell is “defeat.” He's never known it.
Quinten's family has set up a GoFundMe to help pay for his trip to the National Spelling Bee and the special accommodations he might need while traveling. Quinten's promised to send a handwritten postcard to every person who donates over $50 to his cause. To donate, click or tap here.
On Wednesday morning, the fundraiser was just $50 short of its $2,500 goal.
Poopsie's in Galena, Illinois, is also holding a fundraiser for Quinten and his family. 20% of the proceeds from any online order will go to Quinten. All shoppers have to do is leave 'Spelling Bee' in the notes at checkout.
Then during the week of May 11, if you mention Quinten at checkout while shopping in-person, he'll receive 20% of those sales as well.