- The Washington Times - Friday, February 9, 2001

One after another, contestants stepped forward on the stage, took a deep breath and emitted a monotone purr, while a clock ticked to see who could go the longest without taking a breath.

The scene was the eighth annual Spanish R-Rolling Contest at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Va. and it was no place for the linguistically challenged.

Fifty-three contestants who ranged in age from 4 to 59 vied for a top prize of $100 in an event that was partly good-natured fun and partly an opportunity to emphasize the teaching of the Spanish language.

Simon Contreras said he conceived the contest when he was a Spanish teacher at Washington-Lee as a way to encourage students to master the "special flair" it takes to pronounce one of the most difficult letters in the Spanish language.

"It makes the study of the language fun," Mr. Contreras said. "I think it's a great equalizer because anybody can do it."

The first year, the contest was held in a classroom and Mr. Contreras' students were judged by teachers. Soon, the contest opened to the whole school, then to neighboring schools, and then anyone was invited. This year, a teacher brought two students from Lancaster, Pa., to compete.

The record for R-rolling was set in 1996, when an Arlington teen-ager droned the sound for 42 seconds.

While adults are allowed to compete, the overwhelming number of contestants and all the winners were students.

Margaret McCracken, 7, was the youngest, tying for seventh with a time of 15 seconds. She took home $5 and tickets to the Baltimore Zoo.

"I just always have been able to do it," she said about her prowess with pronunciation, adding that she planned to save her prize money.

But the big winner was Antonio Santander, 14, a student at Thomas Jefferson Middle School. Antonio held the consonant for 27 seconds, attributing his stamina to breathing exercises he does as a swimmer. He was the contest's second-place finisher last year and says he can go more than 40 seconds.

He plans to spend his prize money on shoes.

Antonio's Spanish teacher, Linda Rita Perez, brought Antonio and two of his eighth-grade classmates, Monika Stumpo and Heather Shaffer, to represent her Spanish II class. The trio was the dream team of R rollers, racking up first, second and fourth prizes, respectively.

Mrs. Perez said the contest is so popular in her class that they have to have a contest of their own to determine who will represent them.

Monika, 13, said she'll spend her $50 prize money on clothes. Heather, also 13, said it's a little too cold to take advantage of the zoo tickets she won.

Both girls are already planning for a rematch next year and a chance at Antonio's crown.

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