I was in a couple of spelling bees when I was about Akeelah's age. I placed second in my school district's bee, pretty good considering I was younger than most of the other entrants. I remember feeling lucky that I wasn't eliminated earlier, because there were some words I wouldn't have spelled correctly. There was one kid from another school who many people felt would win. He was eliminated on the word "viscount," which I might not have spelled correctly since I didn't use it regularly, although I remember there was a company or something called Viscount with a neon sign that could be viewed from the Long Island Expressway about a mile east of the tunnel entrance.
Being second made me an alternate for the NYC bee. I didn't participate but cheered on (along with my fifth grade classmates) our district rep. Afterwards, we went to see a Charlie Chaplin movie.
I have to question the value of spelling bees, however. I realize they help build vocabulary, but I think there is too much emphasis placed on words that are only used in very specific contexts. These kids spend a lot of time learning these words, which arguably could be spent on other educational activities. Also, perhaps it is not as important as it used to be to be able to spell really well because there is a lot of easily accessible spell-checking software. In fact, given how available spell-checking software is, I'm surprised there are as many spelling mistakes as there are in usenet news, blogs, etc. (I use LJ's spell-checker, which I wish had the ability to add words to it.)
Of course, the argument could be made that things I'm concerned about on aren't really all that important, such as the trivia questions I get asked on interviews. Why should someone memorize what port DNS lives on when it can be easily looked up? Does saying "I don't remember" make the candidate that much less desirable? OTOH, with so many qualified people looking for jobs, some arguably unreasonable criteria can make the difference. If the hiring manager (or whoever) just decided to pick an applicant at random, they might get a decent candidate.
The thought occurred to me that spelling might become the next educational "fad," like problem solving/puzzles have been for a while. If someone were to find some correlation between spelling ability and intelligence, or even "success" in the workplace, that might change the dynamics of who gets hired. My spelling abilities aren't what they used to be, and probably not up to the level of the people who win today's bees, but if it helped me get a really good job I suppose I couldn't complain.