- The Washington Times - Friday, May 30, 2008

No one has mastered the look of spelling bee despair better than 10-year-old Veronica Penny.

The Canadian girl with the long blond hair buried her head deep in her hands each time she was presented with a word yesterday at the Scripps National Spelling Bee in the District. She did it not once, not twice, but three times - the third time for a full 20 seconds - while contemplating the word “paleethnology” in the quarterfinals.

The moment of drama had a positive outcome. She flawlessly spelled the word - it has to do with the study of early humans - putting the fourth-grade student from Ancaster, Ontario, among 45 spellers who advanced into the semifinals, thus earning a spot on national television.

The 81st edition of the bee began early in the day with a record 288 spellers in a competition that has truly hit the big time, inspiring movies, books and a Broadway musical. ESPN will again broadcast the semifinals, and the two-hour finals today will be aired live in primetime on ABC for the third consecutive year.

Also in the semifinals are favorites Tia Thomas and Matthew Evans, a pair of home-schooled 13-year-olds who renewed a friendly but competitive rivalry that began in 2004. They are the only five-time repeaters at this year’s bee, and they’ve been quizzing each other via computer for months and spent this week trying to stump each other with words from their thick study books.

Tia, from Coarsegold, Calif., pumped her arms and let out of big smile after spelling each of her quarterfinal words: “emollience” and “scission.” Matthew, from Albuquerque, N.M., buckled at the knees after spelling both “philiater” and the unusual baseball term “yannigan.”

Matthew and Tia were finalists last year, but another returning finalist, Cody Wang, was eliminated in the quarterfinals. Cody, 14, of Calgary, Alberta, put both hands to his head and gasped in frustration when he misspelled “hierurgical.”

The two other returning finalists from last year advanced to the semifinals: Kavya Shivashankar, 12, of Olathe, Kan., and Anqi Dong, 13, of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. No Canadian has ever won the bee, but Nate Gartke of Alberta was last year’s runner-up.

Yesterday began with the preliminary round, when all of the spellers who made it to Washington received their one guaranteed moment in the spotlight. There was the familiar mix of moments comical and nerve-racking as boys and girls aged 8 to 15 tackled words such as “ambuscade” and “Manhattanese.”

“Can you use it in a song?” queried 12-year-old Marie Mach of Dumfries, Va., when presented with the word “espousal.”

“You really don’t want me to,” replied pronouncer Jacques Bailly with a chuckle. “I can’t sing.”

Marie misspelled the word, guessing “e-s-p-o-w-s-e-l.”

A correct spelling counted as extra credit to a written test the spellers had taken earlier in the week. The top 90 scorers advanced to the quarterfinals.

Two countries were represented for the first time. Maria Isabel Kubabom, a 13-year-old from Ghana, misspelled “seder.” Jiwon Seo, 11, from South Korea, used her finger to write “innumerable” on the back of her placard before spelling it correctly.

Sriram Hathwar became the youngest competitor in bee history when he folded his arms and spelled “elicitation.” Sriram, from Painted Post, N.Y., turned 8 last month and appeared about half the size of the speller seated next to him, 14-year-old Michael Viola of Buffalo.

However, neither Maria Isabel nor Jiwon nor Sriram advanced past the preliminaries, all having failed to score well enough on the written test that included words such as “pinyin,” “eidetic” and “mustard.”

Emily Temple-Wood provided one of highlights of the quarterfinals when she stunned herself by spelling “tickicidal.” The 14-year-old from Downers Grove, Ill., looked totally stumped as she asked questions about the word, even querying whether it had anything to do with a “small, annoying bug.”

Her hunch was correct, but she wasn’t as fortunate in the next round, when she was eliminated on the word “alastrim.” She smiled and flashed a peace sign to the audience as she was escorted off the stage.

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