The ring of a brass bell is the signal of defeat in the competitive spelling bee arena, but the whoop from 14-year-old Lena Greenberg on Thursday as she successfully spelled “cholecystitis” was unmistakably the sound of triumph.
“I was amazed,” Lena said after the semifinal round of the Scripps National Spelling Bee ended.
The Philadelphia teenager spoke breathlessly, eyes wide behind her glasses as she recalled conjuring the term for an inflamed gallbladder seemingly out of thin air.
“I can’t believe I actually made it.”
Lena was one of five girls and four boys left after a tough three rounds of spelling that cut down the initial group of 50 “athletes of the English language” to the champion round spellers.
“It’s not unprecedented,” said Paige Kimble, the director of the bee and herself the 1981 national champion. “Those were the most challenging words we’ve offered.”
Five-year national spelling bee veteran Nicholas Rushlow, however, was unfazed by all but one of his words.
“I felt like I got pretty lucky with the first two,” said Nicholas, who correctly spelled “gabbai,” the name of a person who manages a synagogue and ”taxonomically,” which refers to scientific classification.
His third word was “monocotyledon,” a type of flowering plant, a word he said he “had no clue” about, but “theophylline,” the name of a medication for treating shortness of breath, was one he had to spell correctly, as his father goes over all of the medical terms with him.
Asked about his plans going into the final round — which will be the 14-year-old from Pickerington, Ohio’s last time competing in the national bee — Nicholas said he wanted to “get a good lunch and just chill out.”
This is the 85th Scripps National Spelling Bee. The first bee was held in 1925 and had nine contestants. Scripps took over the sponsorship in 1941.
The young competitors were tested over two days by both written and oral spelling tests.
Proud parents and siblings filled the hotel’s ballroom snapping photographs of their spellers, while the semifinalists awaited their names to be called to come to the microphone.
Some fidgeted awkwardly while others whispered into the ear of their neighbors or waved to the audience.