WASHINGTON — The oral rounds of the Scripps National Spelling Bee opened Wednesday with a touch of geography and a celebratory pump of the arms from the first contestant from China.
Kun Jacky Qiao became the first speller to represent China in the competition for more than $40,000 in cash and prizes. The 12-year-old seventh-grader at the Beijing BISS International School, which caters to the children of expatriates in China, had no problem with “recuperate.”
The bee has included international competitors for three decades. Two winners have come 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 New Zealand, Ghana and South Korea.
Thirteen-year-old Lindsey Zimmer of Notasulga, Ala., was the first of a record 293 spellers in the 82nd annual bee to step to the microphone Wednesday. The eighth-grader who likes to play the flute aced the word “longitude,” drawing out the letters with her Southern accent.
The competition began Tuesday with a written test. Those scores were to be combined with oral round results to determine who will advance to the semifinals. The finals will be broadcast by ABC during prime time Thursday for the fourth consecutive year.
The opening oral round gave the spellers their only guaranteed moments on stage, and the words were relatively easy — at least compared with the mind-blowing stumpers officials planned for later rounds. Only 16 of the first 144 youngsters misspelled, while others raced through familiar words such as “lyric” and “custard.”
There were also tense and comical moments that have made the bee compelling to watch. Some spellers smiled as they approached the microphone, while others seemed on the verge of nervous tears.
Canadian Jonathan Schut muttered “that’s helpful” when told the origin of the word “gimmick” was unknown. The 14-year-old from Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, breezed through it anyway.
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.
Two of the returning favorites went through their familiar rituals to correctly spell their words. Three-time finalist Kavya Shivashankar of Olathe, Kan., wrote with a finger on her palm as she called out the letters to “disciples,” while last year’s runner-up, Sidharth Chand of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., mimed writing on his placard to help him get through “chaotic.”