McLEAN, Va. (AP) - The youngest person ever to qualify for the National Spelling Bee was running around in a stream with a friend, hunting for rocks. Suddenly, she came charging up the bank and headed straight for her mother.
"Hold on to that basalt," Lori Anne Madison said in a bossy 6-year-old's voice, "and do not drop it."
"Go away," her mother said playfully.
Sorina Madison held on the rock nonetheless, and soon was carrying more basalt and a nice hunk of quartz. "I can't carry the entire park," she eventually told her daughter.
Never mind. By then Lori Anne, wearing a green "Little Miss Sunshine" shirt, had joined up with more friends and had taken on a different quest, searching for snails, slugs, tadpoles, water striders, baby snakes and more as they splashed in the waters on a sunny day at the Scotts Run Nature Preserve in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.
"Oh my gosh, what is it? A water worm. A water worm! It's alive," said Lori Anne, her shoes soaked from more than an hour of exploring. "I need it in my collection. It's wonderful."
She is blonde and adorable and talks at 100 mph. In the last few weeks, she has won major awards in both swimming and math, but one accomplishment above all has made her an overnight national celebrity: This week, the precocious girl from Lake Ridge, Va., will be onstage with youngsters more than twice her age and twice her size as one of 278 spellers who have qualified for the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
"She's like a teenager in a 6-year-old body," Sorina said. "Her brain, she understands things way ahead of her age."
It's hard to argue with that, especially after spending a couple of hours with her. There's been no need for Lori Anne's parents to push her to do anything _ because she's already way out in front dragging them along. Some kids are ahead of the curve physically, mentally or socially from a very young age. Lori Anne is the rare exception who defies the norms in every category.
She hit all her milestones early, walking and talking well before others in her playgroup. She was reading before she was 2. She swims four times a week, keeping pace with 10-year-old boys, and wants to be in the Olympics. When her mother tried to enroll her in a private school for the gifted, the headmaster said Lori Anne was just way too smart to accommodate and needed to be home-schooled.
"Once she started reading, that's when people started looking strange at us, in libraries, everywhere, she's actually fluently reading at 2, and at 2 1/2 she was reading chapter books," Sorina said. That meant an unexpected lifestyle change for the mother, a college professor who teaches health-related courses. Lori Anne now studies at home, mastering topics other kids her age won't touch for several years. She wants to be an astrobiologist, a combination of her two favorite subjects, astronomy and biology.
And she talks soooo fast, with well-formed diction and a touch of know-it-all confidence _ just like a teenager.
"She out-argues both of us, and my husband is a trial lawyer," Sorina said with a laugh.
Now there's another wrinkle: spelling bee fame. When Lori Anne spelled "vaquero" to win the regional bee in Prince William County in March, she set a new standard for youth in the national bee's 87-year-old history.
"It was shocking," Sorina said. "I didn't expect all the media attention. We're private people. We're regular people. It was intimidating. But I'm happy for her. She loves it and she does it because it's a passion, and we never push her into anything and want her to make her own choices."
Interviews can be boring for a 6-year-old, especially if it's a television setting where she has to sit and sit and sit, so she pulled the plug, telling her mother: "I want to go back to being a kid and playing with my friends."
So a detente was reached. Lori Anne was more than happy to let a reporter and photographer from The Associated Press tag along at a picnic with other gifted home-schooled children, but she craftily steered any questions about spelling back toward the joint pursuit of slimy things in the creek.
On all the attention she's getting: "I sort of didn't like it. I asked for no interviews but the media seems to be disobeying me, and that's why we're looking for snails and water slugs right now."