NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Joanna Ye was honored with a “Joanna Ye Day” in her hometown after she made the finals in last year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee. She then took five months to go through every word in the unabridged dictionary and was feeling relaxed about her return appearance this year.
Relaxed, that is, until she approached the microphone for the first time Wednesday.
“As I was standing there, waiting for my turn, my heart was pounding,” she said. “I was just trying to take deep breaths and calm down. The words aren’t harder. I think they’re actually easier for me because I’ve had more studying time.”
The 14-year-old eighth grader from Carlisle, Pa., gathered herself enough to handle the words “wickiup” and “metathesis” with ease and was one of 41 spellers to advance to Thursday’s semifinals. The finals of the 84th edition of the bee will be held Thursday night, broadcast in prime time for the sixth consecutive year, with the winner receiving more than $40,000 in cash and prizes.
She and Laura Newcombe of Toronto, who both tied for fifth in 2010, are the top spellers back from last year. Most returning finalists say they feel more pressure the second time around — because everyone’s expecting them to do well — but Joanna took the opposite approach.
“Last year I felt more pressure just to prove myself because it was my first time being here,” she said. “But this year I’ve come with more confidence. My mom’s even told me I have to be more stressed and anxious about it because she thinks I’m too relaxed about it.”
If Joanna wins, she’ll continue a growing tradition of spelling bee champs who want to grow up to be neurosurgeons. It was also the stated career goal for the 2008 and 2009 winners, and last year’s winner said she wanted to become a cardiovascular surgeon.
Laura also made the semifinals, correctly spelling “equinoctial” and “efficacy.” The 12-year-old eighth grader is trying to become the first Canadian to win the title. Laura’s top Canadian rival, 13-year-old Veronica Penny from Rockland, Ontario, also advanced.
Wednesday was the day that all 275 spellers ages 8 to 15 from across the United States and around the world took turns in the spotlight, getting to spell two words without the fear of being dinged off the stage by the dreaded elimination bell. Their scores were combined with a 25-word written test to determine the semifinalists.
The words ranged from amusing (“harrumph” and “ballyhooed”) to obscure (“usufructuary” and “febrifugal”). Pronouncer Jacques Bailly helped ease the tension by turning example sentences into punch lines, such as: “In the days after the Spelling Bee, I watched it over and over again to hear the sound of my own mellisonant voice” and “If Nathan’s plan to achieve world hegemony through Twitter was going to succeed, he was going to need more than 15 followers.”
There was a glitch: Three spellers were given words that did not appear on a study list specifically designed for the early rounds. They misspelled the words, then were later given substitute words after the error was realized.
Making the semifinal round was considered a foregone conclusion for Joanna, Laura and other proven elite spellers. For others like 14-year-old Lily Jordan of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, it was the main goal — because the semifinals are when the main ESPN channel begins broadcasting the competition live.
As the semifinalists were announced, spellers huddled with their families to wait for their numbers to be called. Those who made it could celebrate; many of those who didn’t needed a hug or two. When Lily’s number was announced, she let out a huge smile and her twin younger brothers pumped their fists in excitement.
“I did it,” said Lily, whose very good score was still barely enough to qualify. “I thought I had a pretty good chance, but I wasn’t sure.”
The Spelling Bee’s enormous popularity has made it chic to be geek, in part because of its moments of compelling drama. One of the most suspenseful moments was provided by Marcus Glenn Tecarro of Loves Park, Ill., who was clearly stumped by the word “ineluctable,” an adjective that means something that’s not to be avoided or escaped.
The 14-year-old eighth grader paused and paused again. Bailly caused the room to laugh by using the word in a humorous sentence, connecting it to tax evasion. When Marcus spelled the word correctly, he let out a sigh and feigned falling over backward in relief.
However, Marcus later misspelled “penicillin” and failed to make the semifinals.
Arvind Mahankali from New York punched the air when he correctly spelled “melange,” while Savannah Aldridge of Bridgeport, W.Va., held up crossed fingers at the microphone while waiting for her word — and was happy to hear that it was one in her wheelhouse (“hebetude”). Surjo Bandyopadhyay of Lusby, Md., grabbed the microphone as if he were going to sing instead of spell; he initially looked perplexed by the medical word “lidocaine,” then blurted out “I got it” and spelled it with a smile.
Then there was Skye Merriam, who had the misfortune of getting a word more familiar to sore-muscled adults than bright and lively kids. The 11-year-old sixth grader from Driggs, Idaho, was given the pain reliever “ibuprofen” and guessed “ibuprofine.” She made a sad, slow walk after the round to find her parents, who offered hugs and comfort and managed to coax her into a halfhearted fist bump.