Washington 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., 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 tonight in prime-time on national television.
Each speller — ranging 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.
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 through “facetious” and worked her way through “hemerocallis” — another word for a day lily.
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, rattled off “exacerbate” and “foggara.”
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 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, 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.