Sixteen bright sparks vie for national spelling bee crown

OXON HILL, Md. (Reuters) - Sixteen young spellers, winnowed down from hundreds of contestants, will battle it out on Thursday night in the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee when the champion will walk away with a $50,000 prize.

Slideshow ( 20 images )

The three-day competition in Maryland started on Tuesday with a record 562 spellers aged 7 to 15. Spellers had to ace common words such as “intolerable” and “detrimental” as well as more obscure terms such as “annus mirabilis” and “hibernaculum.”

Spellers faced an onslaught of tricky words during the daytime portion of the finals on Thursday, as parents held hands and whispered prayers from their seats. Competitors successfully tore through tongue twisters like aichmophobia, a fear of sharp things, and enchytrae, a type of worms used as fish food.

Melodie Loya, 14, buried her face in her hands after hearing her word, madrague. The native of Bainbridge, New York, cautiously said each letter aloud as she traced them on her palm with a finger.

“Correct,” said the announcer, sparking cheers from the audience. A madrague is a type of net used to capture tuna in the Mediterranean.

Loya’s success ended two turns later when she misspelled theileriosis, an infection or disease caused by a type of parasite. More than a dozen other eliminated spellers enveloped her with hugs when she left the stage.

The final round on Thursday night will be televised live on ESPN.

This year’s bee drew spelling aces from all 50 U.S. states, U.S. territories and six other countries: the Bahamas, Canada, Ghana, Jamaica, Japan and South Korea.

Cal Alexander’s contest ended on Thursday with the word lomatine, another term for lobed. The 14-year-old from Shreveport, Louisiana, says he studied “countless hours” in hopes of making it to the finals.

“I almost had it!” exclaimed Sahil Langote, 13, of Wilmington, Delaware, after omitting the “s” from palatschinken, a type of crepe stuffed with jam.

“Everyone is just so good this year,” said Sohum Sukhatankar, 13, who is among the final 16. “I’ve studied a lot harder from last year’s bee to now, and I feel like it has paid off.”

A native of Dallas, Texas, Sukhatankar tied for 25th place last year. He successfully spelled at least five words on Thursday, including mignonette, which is a type of herb.

“I’m very excited for the opportunity to have a cat,” said Sukhatankar, whose parents have agreed to let him buy a cat if he wins.

Reporting by Lacey Johnson; Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New York and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Lisa Shumaker