After a longer build-up than usual, the dramatic final rounds of the Scripps National Spelling Bee began on Thursday.
Forty-one spellers advanced to the finals out of a field of 516 — by far the largest in the 93-year history of the competition. Scripps started a wild-card program this year that created a path to nationals for spellers who didn’t win their regional bees, and some of the finalists got to the bee that way.
The past 13 champions and 18 of the last 22 have been Indian-American, and that trend could easily continue. Most of the consensus favorites in this year’s bee have Indian heritage, including Shruthika Padhy, who tied with two others for the best score on the test.
More than 500 spellers tested their skill in front of pronouncer Jacques Bailly or his backup, the Rev. Brian Sietsema, over two days of preliminary rounds. Nearly 200 misspelled words onstage.
Those who advanced to Thursday’s final rounds got there by spelling two words correctly on stage over two days and faring well on a written spelling and vocabulary test — and usually by spending multiple hours a day studying at home to prepare.
One of the top scorers was Shruthika, a 12-year-old from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, who finished seventh in last year’s bee and is considered one of the favorites this year. But even she got a few answers wrong.
“We thought it was an easy test,” bee director Paige Kimble said. “We were wrong.”
Here are some other stories from spellers at this year’s bee:
Some spellers devote years to studying the dictionary, word roots and language patterns. Then there’s Rebekah Zeigler.
The 13-year-old from Polo, Illinois, is certainly an accomplished speller. She’s competing for the fourth time, although she’s never made the finals.
That may be because she also competes in tumbling, volleyball, soccer, softball, basketball, cheerleading and track and field. Next month she’ll be at the US Trampoline and Tumbling Association national championships.
“I don’t have a lot of free time,” Rebekah said.
Rebekah got some of the loudest cheers in the preliminary rounds, mostly from a crew of fellow veteran spellers.
Rebekah had never gotten past the second round of onstage spelling, known as Round 3, because a written test constitutes the first round. But she spelled “yarrow” correctly and achieved her goal for the week, adding, “I was really nervous and dreading it all week.”
Reagan Remmers of Missoula, Montana, was heading out to lunch with her mom after she misspelled “balaclava.”
Or so she thought.
“My mom got a phone call that told her I was reinstated,” Reagan said. “I was like, ‘Oh, sweet!’”
Turns out, the spelling Reagan gave — “Balaklava” — is a city in Ukraine. Since the judges didn’t warn her that her word had a homonym and because Reagan didn’t ask for the definition — a garment covering the head and neck except for parts of the face — her spelling was deemed correct after further review.
“I had no idea what the word meant,” Reagan said.
Still, her spelling wasn’t a complete guess. She asked for the language of origin and was told it was Crimean, which led her to include a “k″ instead of a “c.”
This was just the fifth time in 20 years that a speller was reinstated after judges had determined he or she misspelled a word, Kimble said.
Considering how far he had to travel to get to the bee, Daniel Doudna can be forgiven for taking his time at the microphone.
Daniel lives in Fairbanks, Alaska, one of three spellers from the state. But the 4,100-mile (6,600-kilometer) trip to Washington is nothing new for the 14-year-old: This is his second time in the bee, and two of his older sisters also competed.
When Daniel starts spelling, he’s more deliberate than most, pausing after each letter and letting silence hang in the air. His word on Wednesday was “quietude,” and he created some.
“I made too many mistakes by going fast,” he said. “After each letter, I mentally review the word to see what the next letter is.”