National Spelling Bee: Competitors ease tension with hugs and high-fives

Thirteen children advance to Thursday night’s championship finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, airing on ESPN.

Larry Downing/Reuters
Spellers Katie Fo of Beaverton, Oregon (l.) reacts with Arvind Mahankali of Forest Hills, New York, after he spells a word in the semifinals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee contest at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland, on June 2.

And then there were 13.

Whittled down from a field of 275 stellar spellers from around the world, 13 advance to Thursday night’s prime-time championship finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

In front of a live audience more than double the size of previous years, they’ll wrestle down words you’ve probably never heard and certainly won’t find in a typical abridged dictionary.

This is spelling’s annual moment in the sun – a time when tweeters gush about how smart these pint-size competitors are and debate whether a spelling contest should really be broadcast by a sports network.

Considering the grueling hours of studying the kids put in, the millions of viewers on ESPN, and the fact that, for the first time, people are forking over $40 for tickets to the finals, it’s fair to call it a sport, argues Amy Goldstein, a copy editor at ESPN who tied for fourth place in the 1998 national bee.

One of the biggest “agony of defeat” moments so far this year: Semifinalist Hanif Brown Jr. of Jamaica took just a bit too long before spelling “nataka” correctly – the only time Ms. Goldstein is aware of that a speller was eliminated for surpassing the time limit, currently 2-1/2 minutes.

One speller looking to taste the “thrill of victory” Thursday night is Joanna Ye, an eighth-grader from Carlisle, Pa., who tied for fifth place last year. The word that advanced her to Thursday night’s finals, which begin airing at 8:30 p.m. Eastern time: hypotrichosis, the absence of hair growth.

“The words I got were really easy for me,” she said Thursday afternoon in a phone interview. “There were a few words others got that I would not have wanted to get,” she said, particularly “ocypode,” which stumped fellow semifinalist David Phan.

She says she’s especially enjoying the competition this year. For the first time, the spellers get to watch the profiles of themselves along with the TV audience just before they come up to the microphone. The kids have been getting up for hugs and high-fives during commercials, she said, and even whispering comments to one another during competition to break the tension.

“I’m glad I didn’t win last year, because I would not have been able to handle all the media attention,” Joanna said. “Whatever happens, I’ll still be proud and not have any regrets.” As an eighth-grader, this is the last year she can compete, but she looks forward to volunteering at future bees once she’s in college.

One semifinalist who really entertained the crowd won’t be going on to the finals.

Maryland teen Surjo Bandyopadhyay (yes, we double-checked that spelling) had blurted out at one point Thursday morning, “May I please have all the information on this word?” – rather than methodically going through the permitted questions about word origins, meanings, and use in a sentence. Then he spelled “lysozyme” correctly.

While some kids throw in jokes that have clearly been practiced and seem awkward, Surjo’s expressions and comments were genuine and natural, and that’s what was endearing, Goldstein says.

But in a round early this afternoon, he said N-A-C-H-S-L-A-G when the right spelling of the musical term was “nachschlag.” Realizing he was wrong, he said, “failed!” before leaving the stage with a big smile.

Among the finalists Thursday night are two girls vying to become the first Canadian champion: eighth-grader Laura Newcombe (who tied for fifth place last year) and seventh-grader Veronica Penny.

For all the hours they spend studying word origins, the finalists have a wide range of hobbies – playing the flute, reading Japanese manga, swimming, volunteering at a retirement home, and practicing tae kwon do, to name a few. For many of them, math is a favorite subject. Several have relatives who have also participated in the National Spelling Bee.

One of them will walk away Thursday night without hearing that dreaded elimination bell that rings for an incorrectly spelled word. He or she will earn a trophy, $30,000 in cash and thousands more in products and scholarships – and to top it off, an obscure championship word that will forever be theirs.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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