Deborah Horton made the most of her time in the national spelling spotlight. She greeted the officials with a perky "hello" on Wednesday and asked every question imaginable about a word she could spell in her sleep.
"Efficient." She wanted all the pronunciations and the part of speech. She wanted it in a sentence. She paused between each letter, then was jubilant when told she got it right.
It was a moment to savor. Of the record 293 participants at 82nd Scripps National Spelling Bee, only 41 moved on to the nationally televised semifinals that start Thursday morning, and Deborah didn't score well enough the written test a day earlier to advance.
"It's a bummer — b-u-m-m-e-r," Deborah said as she commiserated with her mother. At least Deborah's eyes were dry — many non-qualifiers were in tears as they left the hotel ballroom.
"At least I have the pride of spelling my word right," said the 13-year-old seventh-grader from Gainesville, Va., a first-time participant. "I had a lot of fun."
Written test scores were combined with the oral rounds Wednesday to determine the semifinalists. A dozen or so spellers will complete in the finals in prime time Thursday for a trophy that comes with more than $40,000 in cash and prizes.
Expected to be in that final group are several returning favorites. Fourteen-year-old Keiko Bridwell of Duncan, S.C., back for the fourth time after tying for 17th last year, had no problem with "swivel" and "mahout" (one who keeps or drives elephants) in her oral rounds and breezed into the semifinals.
Is it easier now because she's a veteran?
"More pressure," Keiko said. "Everybody wants me to do better."
She and her father-coach Barry have mixed feelings about her final year of eligibility in the bee.
"I work with her every day. I enjoy our time studying words; we both enjoy words. I'm going to miss that part of it — but I won't miss the pressure," Barry Bridwell said.
Among the milestones Wednesday was the first speller to represent China. Kun Jacky Qiao is a 12-year-old seventh-grader at the Beijing BISS International School, which caters to the children of expatriates. His family moved to Canada six years ago and has since moved back to China.
Although he was visiting the United States for the first time, Jacky looked right at home. He raced through the word "rasgado" so fast and confidently that the row of officials didn't respond immediately. He then looked at the judges and said: "Correct?"
When they told him he was, he pumped both arms and traded high fives with fellow competitors on the way back to his seat.
But the competition appeared to sap his energy.
"I'm a bit sleepy right now, so my memory's, like, all gone," he said to reporters afterward. He didn't make the semifinals.
Spellers from Ghana, South Korea
The bee has included international competitors for three decades, with two winners coming from outside the 50 states: Hugh Tosteson of Puerto Rico in 1975 and Jody-Anne Maxwell of Jamaica in 1998. This year's field also includes spellers from far-off places such as New Zealand, Ghana and South Korea.
There were the usual tense and comical moments that have made the bee compelling to watch. Some spellers smiled as they approached the microphone, while others were so nervous they appeared ready to cry.
After 14-year-old Imogen Page of Blue Hill, Maine, exhausted all the information she could get about the word "cowardice," she asked: "Is there anything else you can tell me?"
"It's a nice day," pronouncer Jacques Bailly offered.
Imogen handled the word with ease, but failed to advance to Thursday.
Two favorites went through their familiar rituals to correctly spell their words. Kavya Shivashankar, a three-time top 10 finisher from Olathe, Kan., wrote with a finger on her palm as she called out the letters to "disciples" and "mesophilic," while last year's runner-up, Sidharth Chand of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., mimed writing on his placard to help him get through "chaotic" and "springerle." Both qualified for the semifinals.