The finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee got off to an excruciating start on Thursday when 20 of the spellers out of a total of 40 all misspelled the word that Tejas Muthusamy was stepping up to the microphone to attempt.
For the past two years, Muthusamy, from Glen Allen, Virginia, had made it into the top ten finalists. The word to spell was "salele," Samoan for a small, dusky fish. The 13 year old asked every question that he was allowed to ask, but finally he had to give it a try. He continued to stall until the red light came on that warned him he had 30 seconds left to avoid the inevitable.
He began spelling, "S-O-L-E-L-E," he said. He missed it by one letter, and then exited the stage while the audience gave him a standing ovation.
Spelling bee officials warned contestants that the competition was going to be more difficult this year, but getting the participants down to 10 before the ESPN finale was still going to take some effort.
The youngsters were given even more challenging words that were hard to figure out. The judges were throwing out obscure words and biological terms, and they were coming up with words that had no alternative pronunciations and no roots. Still, Muthusamy's friend Mitchell Robinson was shocked when his pal was eliminated. Robinson made it to the top ten, according to the Associated Press.
"I can't even remember the last time he misspelled a word online," said Mitchell, 14, of Marblehead, Massachusetts. "I think the pressure got to him. I don't think this was his swan song."
Silvie Lamontagne of Lakewood, Colorado managed to spell âsylvilagus," a cotton-tailed bunny. Jairam Hathwar, 13, from Painted Post, NY, said he wanted to take home the trophy so that he could get out of the competition altogether. He had already grappled with his last word, "quinton."
Steph Solis, writing for USA Today, writes that the bee was started in 1925 but was stopped during World War II. Also, bee competitors have a "beekeeper," which is like an autograph book, and the spellers, who become closely acquainted during the contest, have all their friends sign their books each year that they are involved in the bee.
The National Spelling Bee in National Harbor, Md., began on Tuesday with an exam, but no one was ejected for misspelling a word at that time. Solis disclosed that there is a "Crying Couch" available when a contestant is eliminated. Kids can go there to wait for their parents to join them.
Six-year-old Akash Vukoti from San Angelo, Texas, was eliminated on Wednesday afternoon for missing the correct spelling of "bacteriolytic." He only missed by one letter.
Ben Nuckols, writing for the Associated Press, says the last champion who lived in another country was Jody-Anne Maxwell from Jamaica in 1998. Afua Ansah of Ghana is on her way to this year's top ten. And ten-year-old J.J. Chen of Bethesda, Maryland, is the youngest speller to reach the finals.
By Thursday night, the group will be whittled down to approximately 12 for the 8:00 p.m. contest on ESPN.
For the last two years the bee has had co-winners, but this year the championship round is supposed to be harder and more lengthy, repeats Ian Shapira for The Washington Post.