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Diverse passions among contenders at Spelling Bee

All things being equal, Anna-Marie Sprenger would rather win a dance contest than a spelling bee.

But Anna-Marie has lived in France and is fluent in French and Romanian. She's also conversational in German and Spanish and is currently studying Chinese.

With that kind of background, she was able to win her regional bee in Utah with virtually no preparation. Now she's gone even farther, having advanced to the semifinals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

"My main goal was just to make it here. That was my first time at regionals and I didn't even study, and so I was pretty sure I wasn't going to make it," said the 13-year-old eighth grader from Provo, who wore a red flower in her hair onstage. "Because the words resemble words I know from other languages, it just helps a lot."

Anna-Marie was one of 41 spellers to make the semifinals, scheduled to begin Thursday morning. The finals of the 84th edition of the bee will be held Thursday night, broadcast in prime time for the sixth consecutive year, with the winner receiving more than $40,000 in cash and prizes.

Some have studied for years for this moment. Semifinalist Joanna Ye of Carlisle, Pa., spent five months going through the entire dictionary after tying for fifth last year. Most of the top spellers like to hear the full range of clues offered with a word — definition, language of origin, alternative pronunciations and use in a sentence.

But Anna-Marie, in both of her appearances at the microphone Wednesday, simply confirmed what she already knew and got down to business. When she heard the food-related word "persillade," she asked if it was from French and spelled it right away.

"She's not very excited about spelling, so spelling is not her passion," said her mother, Anca Sprenger, "so I'm happy — but maybe not that proud."

The mother paused.

"Does that hurt you if I say that?" she asked her daughter.

"Nooooo," Anna-Marie answered.

"I'm just happy for you," the mother said.

Anna-Marie wasn't offended because ballroom dancing is her real passion, just one of an array of eclectic interests shared by the semifinalists. Samuel Estep of Berryville, Va., designs games on his calculator. Mashad Arora of Brownsville, Texas, has built and raced a hydrogen fuel cell car. David Krak of Lititz, Pa., plays Gershwin on the piano. Nicholas Rushlow of Pickerington, Ohio, is a competitive swimmer and violinist. Parker Strubhar of Piedmont, Okla., has been to 29 states and wants to make it to all 50 before he graduates from high school. Anja Beth Swoap is known as the "scarf queen" in her hometown of Edina, Minn., because she has such of large collection of the fashionable neckwear.

Wednesday was the day all 275 spellers ages 8 to 15 from across the United States and around the world took turns in the spotlight, getting to spell two words without the fear of being dinged off the stage by the dreaded elimination bell. Their scores were combined with a 25-word written test to determine the semifinalists.

The words ranged from amusing ("harrumph" and "ballyhooed") to obscure ("usufructuary" and "febrifugal"). Pronouncer Jacques Bailly helped ease the tension by turning example sentences into punch lines, such as: "In the days after the Spelling Bee, I watched it over and over again to hear the sound of my own mellisonant voice" and "If Nathan's plan to achieve world hegemony through Twitter was going to succeed, he was going to need more than 15 followers."

There was a glitch: Three spellers were given words that did not appear on a study list specifically designed for the early rounds. They misspelled the words, then were later given substitute words after the error was realized.

Reaching the semifinal round was considered a foregone conclusion for the elite spellers. For others like 14-year-old Lily Jordan of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, it was the primary goal — in part because the semifinals are when the main ESPN channel begins broadcasting the competition live.

As the semifinalists were announced, spellers huddled with their families to wait for their numbers to be called. Those who made it could celebrate; some of those who didn't shed a tear and needed a hug or two. When Lily's number was announced, she let out a huge smile and her twin younger brothers pumped their fists in excitement.

"I did it," said Lily, whose good score was still barely enough to qualify. "I thought I had a pretty good chance, but I wasn't sure."

___

Joseph White can be reached at http://twitter.com/JGWhiteAP

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