Thursday, May 28, 2009

WASHINGTON — The chairs on the ballroom stage emptied one by one, left vacant by those who had guessed and walked away disappointed. Rarely has a spelling bee round been this brutal.

Twenty of 36 spellers, including two of the favorites, were wiped out Thursday in the second semifinal round of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Five more were eliminated in the next round, leaving 11 to compete in the finals Thursday night, when the winner would receive more than $40,000 in cash and prizes.

Gone was four-time participant Josephine Kao of Carmichael, Calif., who tied for 13th last year. She was stumped by “gastaldo” (a representative of a king), putting an “e” where the first “a” should be. Gone was Keiko Bridwell of Duncan, S.C., back for the fourth time after tying for 17th last year, for uttering “thylocine” instead of “thylacine” (a rare dog-like marsupial).

Also eliminated was 11-year-old Veronica Penny of Hamilton, Ontario, who has become known for burying her head in her hands in a look of despair before spelling her words. She held the pose for about 40 seconds before spelling “maquelle” instead of “macle” (a type of crystal) and exited the stage to receive a big hug from her mother.

Even the organizers were starting to fret.

“That was a painful run,” said Carolyn Andrews, who is in charge of selecting the words.

For a long time, the loneliest person in the room was 13-year-old Ramya Auroprem of San Jose, Calif. — sitting in the only occupied chair in her row as the only one of the first 10 competitors in the round to spell her word correctly. She was finally joined in the next round by 13-year-old Serena Laine-Lobsinger of West Palm Beach, Fla., who put her hand over her mouth in disbelief when she spelled “hircocervus” (a legendary half-goat, half-stag).

How nerve-racking was the round? Thirteen-year-old Neetu Chandak of Seneca Falls, N.Y., started spelling “perciatelli,” a type of pasta, when she suddenly stopped.

“I’d like to start again,” she said. “What was the word?”

Nevertheless, she spelled it correctly, letting out a big “yes” as she pumped her arms.

“I was getting real dizzy,” Neetu said. “I didn’t want to mess up when I’m getting real close to the finals.”

Ramya, Serena and Neetu all advanced to the finals, as did two returning favorites. Kavya Shivashankar of Olathe, Kan., who finished in the top 10 each of the last three years, nailed “ergasia,” ”kurta” and “escritoire.” Last year’s runner-up, Sidharth Chand of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., was his usual all-business self in his white shirt, blue sweater and tie as he spelled “sobornost,” ”machtpolitik” and “unakite.”

The day began with 41 semifinalists, survivors of the preliminary rounds that included a record 293 participants. Only five were eliminated in the first semifinal round, when words like “strontium” and “parabulia” didn’t stump anyone.

The bee’s popularity has made it an annual ratings winner for ESPN and ABC, but the extra limelight serves to compound the jitters in an already tension-packed ballroom. Another of the Canadian spellers — Claudine Broussard of Port Hawkesbury, Nova Scotia — was just about to approach the microphone when officials called for a two-minute commercial break. She, and the entire room, let out a huge nervous exhalation.

Helping to break the tension were the funnier-than-usual examples read by pronouncer Jacques Bailly. Asked by 11-year-old Nicholas Rushlow of Pickerington, Ohio, to use “noisette” (a type of food) in a sentence, Bailly replied: “Gail couldn’t keep her eyes off the piece of noisette in her date’s teeth.”

The next time Nicholas spelled, he was given this gem, used to explain the word “hebdomadally” (an adverb meaning once a week):

“Stacy told Alex that his dating prospects would improve greatly if he started bathing more than just hebdomadally.”

The humor didn’t help this time. Nicholas misspelled the word.

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