Neetu Chandak had trouble catching her breath after learning Thursday she had made the next round of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. To burn off some of the energy, she starting playing peek-a-boo with her 6-month-old cousin.
"My heart's, like, beating," she said, fanning her face with both hands. "I'm not sure if anybody can hear me. I'm thinking, 'What if I don't make it?'"
The 14-year-old from Seneca Falls, N.Y., in the green blouse with glittering butterflies had no reason to worry. She tackled both of her words with ease and became one of 48 spellers to advance to the semifinals.
The semifinalists are all that remain from the 273 competitors from across the U.S. and around the world who gathered for the three-day competition. The champion, who wins an enormous trophy and more than $40,000 in cash and prizes, will be crowned Friday night in prime-time on national television.
Each of the spellers — ranging in age from 8 to 15 — got to spell two words onstage under the bright lights of the Grand Hyatt ballroom. The results were combined with a written test taken Wednesday to determine the semifinalists.
High-fives for 'facetious'
Neetu, an aspiring architect and interior designer, is perhaps the biggest celebrity among this year's spellers. She's made the nationals for the fourth time — more than anyone else in the field — and tied for eighth in 2009. She smiled her way through "facetious" and didn't hesitate as she worked her way through "hemerocallis" — another word for a day lily. She was trading hugs and high-fives with her fellow semifinalists after the results were announced.
Another returning finalist, 14-year-old Anamika Veeramani, of North Royalton, Ohio, was just as steady. Anamika, who tied for fifth in her debut last year, kept both hands behind her back as she rattled off "exacerbate" and "foggara."
Anamika said she was excited to know her friends back home will be able to watch her on ESPN Friday morning in school.
"I'm more relaxed now," Anamika said. "The studying part is pretty much done."
Neetu and Anamika are both hoping to become the third straight Indian-American to win the bee, and the eighth in the last 12 years.
"That's a little too far right now. Take one step at a time," said Neetu's father, Mahesh. "We're just so excited that she made it to the semifinals."
The other finalist returning from last year, 13-year-old Tim Ruiter, of Centreville, Va., fiddled with the homemade bracelet given to him by his sister as he correctly spelled "canape" and "paparazzo."
Varying accents, spelling styles
As always, the bee gave the nation a chance to see a full spectrum of bright kids with varying accents, senses of fashion and spelling styles that ranged from serious to somber to lively and even humorous. The speller from China, 13-year-old Jacky Qiao, grabbed a firm hold of the microphone with his right hand and intensely spelled "recidivist" — then celebrated with a huge wave of both arms as he headed back to his seat. However, he failed to qualify for the semifinals.
"The kids are just fun to watch," bee pronouncer Jacques Bailly said. "Some are 13 and short. Some are 13 and tall. Some are 13 looking like 20. Some are 13 and look like 8."
Darren Sackey made sure everyone knew he had come a long way to take part in the bee — he wore a bright yellow shirt with the word "GHANA" across the front. The 13-year-old from the capital Accra, used the tried and true method of tracing the word on the back of his placard before correctly spelling "camandante," but he also failed to advance.
For the second straight year, Bailly helped lighten the mood with his laugh-out-loud sentences. When 10-year-old Margaret Peterson from Granger, Ind., wanted to know more about the word "raita" — a type of Indian salad — Bailly responded: "Asking Preston to be patient was like ordering raita at a Taco Bell."
Youngest is only 8
The youngest speller — 8-year-old Vanya Shivashankar of Olathe, Kan. — looked right at home. She was on the same stage a year ago, helping her sister and Kavya celebrate victory as the 2009 champion.
Vanya, barely 4 feet tall and wearing a gray-and-white striped hoodie, greeted Bailly confidently with her hands on her hips. She then mimicked her sister's spelling style — tracing the word on her palm — and correctly spelled "euthanasia." She had no problem with "ocelot" in the next round but failed to qualify for the semifinals because of her lower score on the written test.
Earning a place in spelling lore is 13-year-old semifinalist Sonia Schlesinger, who is believed to be the first person to represent two countries at the bee. Sonia was living in Washington, D.C., last year, but her family moved to Tokyo in January. One of the first things she did was to check to see if Japan sent a speller to the bee.
"I really wanted to do this again," she said.