For some, triumph; for others, despair


NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – No one was more surprised than Maggie Sheridan when she aced the word “whirlicote” in the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

“What?” the 13-year-old from Mansfield, Ohio, exclaimed when told she’d correctly spelled the term for a luxurious carriage or coach.

Maggie clasped her hands to her head, grinned and headed back to her seat on stage as the crowd roared its approval.

Her victory, however, was short-lived. She missed “saccharomycete” in the next round and was eliminated from the competition.

Thursday was a day of triumph for some of the 40 finalists – and despair for others – in the national spelling contest, which is which is under way at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, just outside of Washington.

The annual bee opened Tuesday with a record 291 spellers from across the country. By Wednesday evening, only 40 finalists remained in the competition after two oral rounds of spelling and a written spelling and vocabulary test. Only 22 were still standing after by early afternoon Thursday.

The champion speller will be crowned Thursday night in a prime-time broadcast that begins at 8:30 pm ET on ESPN.

“Should we do this?” pronouncer Jacques Bailly asked Melodie Loya, the first speller to take the stage during Thursday morning’s finals.

“No,” replied the 12-year-old from Bainbridge, N.Y., prompting laughter from the crowd.

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Melodie might have appeared hesitant, but she was clearly ready. She had no trouble spelling “napiform,” which means shaped like a turnip.

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The spelling bee, which is in its 90th year, is a high-profile, high-pressure endurance test as much as a nerd spelling match. The stress of the contest was etched on many spellers’ faces as they took their turn at the microphone in front of a crowded ballroom.

“I’m pretty nervous,” Nikhil Lahiri, 14, of Painted Post, N.Y., confessed from the stage, just seconds before correctly spelling “outarde,” which is a Canadian goose.

Varad Mulay, 13, of Novi, Mich., clasped his hands to his chin in prayer-like fashion and heaved a sigh of relief after correctly deconstructing “obmutescence,” which means becoming or keeping silent.

Spellers spend months preparing for the bee. For some, the prep work paid off big time, enabling them to conquer tongue-twisters that most people couldn’t even pronounce.

Rohan Sachdev, 14, of Cary, N.C., easily mastered “purlieu,” a French word for an outlying or adjacent district. Samhita Kumar, 11, of Gold River, Calif., had no trouble with “cygneous,” which means curved like the neck of a swan.

Tara Singh, 12, of Louisville, Ky., nervously counted off each letter on her fingers as she correctly spelled “poinciana,” which is an ornamental tree or shrub.

Spellers often resorted to humor to buy time or break the stress of trying to decipher unfamiliar words.

“Uh, what is it?” asked 10-year-old Brendan Pawlicki, when given the Swedish word “desman.” (For the record, it’s an aquatic mammal that resembles a mole.)

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Brendan, of Shelby Township, Mich., grinned and shook his head after spelling out “d-e-s-m-o-n-d.” Even before he heard the dreaded ding of the elimination bell, he knew he’d missed and would be out of the competition.

A case of obliviscence could have been Grant Taylor’s downfall. The 14-year-old from Lubbock, Texas, missed the Latin word for forgetfulness and was eliminated in the fourth round.

Rutvik Gandhasri, 13, of San Jose, Calif., tripped over “auteur,” which refers to a filmmaker, and was knocked out of the competition. Sohum Sukhatankar, 11, of Allen, Texas, was stumped by “roussette,” which is a small shark or dogfish.

This year’s contest is operating under a new set of rules designed to prevent it from ending in a tie for the fourth year in a row.

All finalists still left standing Thursday night will be given a tiebreaker written test with 12 words and 12 vocabulary questions. If two or three spellers remain on stage at the end of 25 rounds, the speller with the highest score on the tiebreaker test will be declared the national champion.

If there’s a tie on the tiebreaker, the spellers with the highest scores will be declared the winners.

The winner – or winners – will take home $40,000 in cash, a trophy and other prizes.

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