OXON HILL, Md. – The 284 kids competing in this year's Scripps National Spelling Bee got their first opportunity to approach the microphone on Wednesday — and to hear the dreaded bell that signals an incorrect spelling. At the end of Wednesday's onstage rounds, the field will be cut to no more than 50 spellers for Thursday's finals.
Here are some highlights from the preliminary rounds, which featured more difficult words than in past years — a trend that will continue into Thursday's finals. Scripps changed the rules to make the bee more difficult after the competition ended in a tie for two straight years.
Speller No. 1 this year was Erin Howard, which meant all eyes — and extra pressure — were on her when the bee began. Scripps showed it meant business by launching the bee with "abecedarius," which she got right. She also spelled "tulipomania" correctly to open the second onstage round.
Erin, 11, knew there was a chance she'd be batting leadoff because she's from Huntsville, Alabama, and the spellers are organized in alphabetical order by state.
"I was hoping they would mess up and put Alaska first," Erin said. "But no! Had to do it right!"
She didn't have time to settle her nerves before she was asked to approach the microphone.
"It's kind of abrupt," Erin said. "Oh, it's my turn! OK!"
I MUST HAVE SPELLED A THOUSAND TIMES
For years, spellers have come up with clever greetings for pronouncer Jacques Bailly. This year, the goal for many was to stump him by saying hello in a foreign language he didn't know.
But 10-year-old Jiming "JJ" Chen Jr. of Bethesda, Maryland, took Adele as his inspiration for the drollest greeting of the day.
"Hello," Jiming said.
"Hello," Bailly said.
"It's me," Jiming deadpanned.
PLEASE REPEAT THE WORD
Arushi Kalpande is in her third straight National Spelling Bee, and she's perfected a technique that many successful spellers have used in the past. Every time she asks pronouncer Jacques Bailly about the word, she repeats it, almost like a mantra. The technique has both practical and emotional benefits.
"When you repeat the word, the judges know if you're pronouncing the word right," said Arushi, 14, of Billerica, Massachusetts, who hopes to make the finals this year in her last appearance in the bee. "It helps you to focus on the word."
Even if she knows a word, the more she says it, the more her confidence grows.
"It calms you down," Arushi said. "It's always been my habit."
Before Mira Dedhia of Western Springs, Illinois, made it to the national bee, she would watch the ESPN broadcast with her father. But her mother, Lakshmi Nair, had a hard time even staying in the room when the bee was on.
The reason: Nair made it to the bee three times, from 1988-1990, and watching it brings back uncomfortable emotions.
"I'm so nervous. I feel like I'm 13 years old all over again," Nair said. "I can barely stomach it. It's nerve-wracking."
While some families have created semi-dynasties with siblings competing in the bee — last year, Vanya Shivashankar became the first sibling of a past champion to win — kids following their parents into the bee have been less common. Nair said she took a hands-off approach.
"I know firsthand how much pressure it was. Once she started winning bees, I was happy to help her," Nair said. "It's so much work that you can't push your kid to do it."
DING! DING! DING!
Last year, only four spellers got words wrong during the first onstage round. The words used during that round came from a list that spellers were able to study for months while preparing for their regional bees.
This year's opening-round words still came from a list, but spellers only got it about 50 days in advance. As a result, the bell rang for 33 spellers. Among the words that were misspelled: chanoyu, scarlatina, tilleul, preterition, quadrumanous and octateuch.
"This year, we upped the challenge," said Paige Kimble, the bee's executive director.
Spellers can show their confidence by smiling when they get a word they know, or by spelling it fast, without bothering to confirm the definition or language of origin.
Logan Gregg of Vermillion, South Dakota, had a different move. After spelling "leguminous," the 13-year-old turned and stepped toward his onstage seat before the judges even had a chance to tell him he got it right. The move was reminiscent of Stephen Curry running back on defense before one of his 3-pointers swishes through the net.
Follow Ben Nuckols on Twitter at https://twitter.com/APBenNuckols . His work can be found at http://twitter.com/APBenNuckols.