In between preparing for the state MathCounts and spelling bee competitions later this month, Emma Peasley finds time for other pursuits, including art and even relaxing.

Soft-spoken and self-possessed, the back-to-back Missoula County spelling bee champion shared that she’s more than just a spelling aficionado.

The Sussex School eighth-grader has a visual memory and enjoys art, especially drawing faces and eyes. Recently, she completed a packing tape sculpture of a mermaid tail.

Like many 13-year-olds, she is interested in fashion. Paris is the place she would most like to visit and she takes French lessons.

Although Montana is landlocked, Emma loves the ocean and swimming.

She also likes a good challenge, which is why she participates in MathCounts. Although math is not her easiest subject, on Friday, March 20, she will participate in the state competition. The next day, she will represent Missoula County in the Treasure State Spelling Bee.

“I’m kind of nervous about it,” she said, of the closely spaced competitions.

“Math I think is a little bit harder, but I’ve done a lot of practice,” she said, adding she started MathCounts as a way to challenge herself.

Spelling comes more naturally.

Emma began building her spelling skills long before her first bee, though.

***

She attributes her spelling acumen and love of reading to the 17,000 miles she spent traveling by sailboat from Seattle to New Zealand when she was younger.

She was 6 when her family set sail.

Onboard were hundreds of books her mom, Sandy Peasley, had purchased from area thrift stores.

Days spent traveling the open waters of the Pacific could be boring for Emma, but the books Sandy thought to bring along proved wonderful companions, and Emma spent much of her time when the boat was underway reading and stretching her imagination.

“After a while, I got pretty good at staying entertained by myself,” Emma said.

At her young age, she still believed in mermaids and other mythical sea creatures and saw many different ocean dwellers, such as dolphins and stingrays.

Most of the time, the trip was enjoyable, but there were times she was scared.

“I used to sometimes think I was going to die because the waves were so intense,” she said.

The 49-foot boat didn’t provide the family with much space away from one another. The trio became adept at anticipating movements and relied on each other in ways demanded by the rigors and danger of sailing, Sandy said.

“For whatever reason, Emma seemed to always feel like mom and dad are going to take care of this and we’re going to make it through this,” she said.

Overall, Emma fondly remembers the trip and said the voyage cemented a strong bond with her parents.

“It was a really amazing experience,” she said.

***

The family of three periodically went ashore to restock provisions, experience cultures and do some volunteer work.

Emma would make friends and then have to leave, which was another difficult part of the journey, she said.

Her most vivid memories are of Fiji, where she remembers scenery that could grace postcards and exceedingly happy people.

“I remember that people were really, really nice,” she said.

Many of the places her family docked were occupied by people without material trappings, such as cars and houses, she said.

“But they were the happiest people I’ve ever met,” she said, adding she realized happiness is not a result of how much one has.

“So now I kind of really understand that,” she said.

When the family returned from their trip, they moved back to Montana, where Emma was born.

“We decided to come back to Montana because there’s just no better place,” Sandy said.

Emma carried her love of reading with her when she returned to land, and remembering words from books helped her visualize and spell them.

In fifth grade, she competed in her first spelling bee. When she realized she could excel at the competition, she began preparing for the annual competitions, using a whiteboard to spell out practice words several times a week.

Sandy reads words to Emma who then spells them on the whiteboard.

Often, the studying is punctuated with laughter.

“I’ll mispronounce something and she’ll correct me and we start laughing,” Sandy said.

The study time also is bonding time.

“I think I’m the one who’s probably going to miss it the most,” Sandy said.

***

All the reading and studying is paying off. Last year, Peasley placed second at the state bee despite nerves.

“I think it was a lot further than I ever expected to go,” she said.

This year, she has a second shot at a title, and said she feels more prepared than she has before.

“I’m going to try to win this year,” she said.

Even though Emma is secure in who she is, the attention accompanying her achievements makes her uncomfortable, as does the pressure to do well, Sandy said.

That’s when she circles back to words to live by found in a Richard Bach book.

“You only have one obligation in any lifetime, and that’s to be true to yourself,” she said.

Heading into the MathCounts and spelling bee competitions, Emma said she is trying to relax and not have expectations.

Just as she focuses on one word at a time during spelling bees, she will focus on each competition separately, she said.

“And just try my hardest with both competitions,” she said.

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