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The first rounds of National Spelling Bee are going to be tough

OXON HILL, Md. – A sorceress ran off the stage in the middle of her time at the mic and said she needed to pee. Another tried to go back to her seat after spelling her first word correctly, only to be reminded that she had a vocabulary word next. During one particularly brutal stretch, 10 consecutive spellers heard the bell signaling elimination.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee used to start with a handshake. Now it starts with a slap in the face.

The bee, slimmer and meaner in its post-pandemic iteration, returned to its usual spot on Tuesday for the first time in three years, and the spellers were greeted with a new prelim format that gave them no time to get comfortable .

“The preliminary round is no joke. Every stage of the bee is so important,” said Dhroov Bharatia, a 13-year-old from Plano, Texas, who placed fourth last year.

In recent years, the early spelling rounds on stage have done little other than weed out the weakest or most nervous spellers. The real action was a written test that determined who would make it to the semifinals.

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But during last year’s mostly virtual Bee, the Bee’s new CEO scrapped the test, and that structure continued as 229 spellers took the stage for this year’s full-face competition. Eighty-eight of those players advanced to Wednesday’s quarterfinals for a 38% success rate.

The spellers had to say three words in a round on the microphone to continue in the bee. First, they were given a word from a provided list of 4,000 – more than double the number in previous years. Then they had to answer a multiple-choice vocabulary question about a word on the same list. Finally, they had to spell a word found somewhere in Webster’s unabridged dictionary.

Annie-Lois Acheampong, one of three spellers from Ghana, didn’t get that far on her first try. She successfully worked her way through her first word, coulrophobia – fear of clowns – and was then asked to define edamame. She smiled at first, but when she crossed her legs and couldn’t stand still, it was clear that something else was going on.

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“I think I’m about to pee on myself,” said the 13-year-old eighth-grader. “Can I go pee? I am very sorry.”

She rushed off the stage before receiving a response from the stunned judges, who paused the competition to deliberate on how to handle the situation.

“It was a first,” said senior judge Mary Brooks, who has been involved with the bee for 50 years.

The judges ultimately decided to allow Annie-Lois to return after the final scheduled speller of the day. She got her substitute vocabulary right, but faltered on spelling “apery” to wrap up the day’s action. Although Annie-Lois could have been eliminated for exceeding the 30-second limit on the earlier vocabulary question, Brooks said the speller’s clock was stopped because she had a legitimate emergency.

There is precedent for stopping the clock in what Brooks called “extenuating circumstances,” most notably in 2004 Akshay Buddiga fainted on stage but recovered and finished second.

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Braydon Syx, of West Blocton, Alabama, might not get that far, but his time in front of the mic on Tuesday summed up the newly riveting drama of the early rounds.

The 13-year-old seventh grader took his first flight on an airplane to take part in this year’s Bee. Braydon’s first word was “ormolu” – a gold-colored alloy of copper, zinc and sometimes tin. He spelled “ORM” and then paused for a long, agonizing pause before spitting out the last three letters. He stretched his arms out to his sides after identifying the definition of the word “trembling” — not a bad description of his demeanor on the mic.

“It was really scary,” said Braydon, “but I also felt very happy at the same time. It was a weird feeling.”

Then came brome – any grass of a large genus of grasses native to temperate regions. Something about the word bothered him.

“Can you repeat that?” he asked.

“Can you repeat it another time?”

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He took a deep breath. “Can you say it again?”

Afterwards, Braydon explained his dilemma: “With ‘Bromegrass,’ I didn’t know if he pronounces it with an ‘m’ or ‘n’.”

Still, through a combination of hard work, luck and perseverance, Braydon will spell again on Wednesday.

Akira Harris won’t be so lucky. The eighth grader at a Defense Ministry middle school in Stuttgart started by spelling “rednigote” correctly, then turned and walked to her seat.

“Akira, we need you for your word meaning round,” a judge told her.

She stood in silence looking miserable after being given three possible definitions for the word “bandicoot”. She made a guess – “A?” – before being told to read the multiple choice answer below that letter, which was wrong.

Akira returned to the audience and buried her head on her mother’s shoulder. When her group of wizards was done, Akira made another detour – this time to the exits.

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https://www.local10.com/entertainment/2022/05/31/no-joke-initial-rounds-of-national-spelling-bee-get-tough/ The first rounds of National Spelling Bee are going to be tough

Sarah Y. Kim

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