OXON HILL, Md. — Dev Jaiswal's journey to the Scripps National Spelling Bee finals shows just how competitive spelling has become.
Dev, a 13-year-old from Louisville, Mississippi, made it to the national bee in 2012. In the two years after that, he finished second and third in the Mississippi state bee.
This year, he didn't just win his state. He's reached the pinnacle. Dev carried the highest score into the semifinal rounds and spelled both of his words correctly to become one of ten finalists with a chance to win $37,000 in cash and prizes.
Dev said he changed up his study routine this year, and he also got a lot of advice from veteran spellers. Even though this was his first time in the semifinals, he's well-known in the spelling community and has vocal crowd support.
"I'm so proud of Dev," said Jacob Williamson, who finished seventh last year and is cheering on his fellow spellers from the audience.
To make the finals, Dev had to spell a word he didn't know — "naranjilla," an herb cultivated in northern South America for its edible bright orange fruits.
"It's very exciting, especially when you get a word you've never heard of before," he said. "It's always scary when that happens."
Dev used his expanded knowledge of roots and language patterns — the word is derived from Spanish — to make his best guess. When he got it right, he jumped up and down and pumped his fists before returning to the microphone to yell "Thank you!"
Cole Shafer-Ray, 14, of Norman, Oklahoma, also made a big leap this year, although his confident onstage demeanor suggests otherwise. He's the fastest speller among the 10 finalists, rarely bothering to ask for more than the definition of a word.
Cole made the national bee last year and in 2013, but he had never made the semifinals. This year, he was the second-highest scoring finalist, and he said spending more time studying vocabulary — which became part of the bee in 2013 — made the difference.
Cole punched his ticket to the finals by spelling "hapalonychia," which means abnormal softness of the fingernails or toenails.
Dev and Cole will join three spellers who are more familiar to bee watchers. Thirteen-year-old Vanya Shivashankar of Olathe, Kansas, is in the bee for the fifth time and will make her second appearance in the finals. Her sister, Kavya, won in 2009. They could become the first champion siblings.
Gokul Venkatachalam, 14, of Chesterfield, Missouri, who finished third last year, will make another run at the title. Another returning finalist is 12-year-old Tejas Muthusamy of Glen Allen, Virginia.
Paul Keaton, 14, of Pikeville, Kentucky, who just missed out on last year's finals, made it this year. His older sister, Emily, competed five times but never made the finals.
To make the finals, spellers had to get two words right onstage Thursday morning and ace a spelling and vocabulary test they took Wednesday evening. For the first time this year, bee officials released the test scores before the semifinals, so spellers knew where they stood.
Sylvie Lamontagne and Snehaa Kumar entered the semifinals tied, one point below the cutoff. Coincidentally, they were sitting next to each other on stage. They whispered to each other about the words their competitors were getting and pretended to write them down on the placards with their names.
At one point, Sylvie hid her face behind her placard before nodding her head as a speller ahead of her got a word right.
Both said they were uncomfortable in the position of hoping someone ahead of them stumbled, but still, they were glad to know where they stood.
"Several people who I really expected to get their words right, missed their words," said Sylvie, a 12-year-old from Lakewood, Colorado. "I felt bad for them. I felt happy for myself."
The younger brothers of the 2013 and 2014 champions both missed out on the finals, but both will have another opportunity next year. Spellers can compete through the eighth grade.
ECSTASY AND AGONY
Katharine Wang, 13, of Morristown, New Jersey, had little chance of making the finals because of her test scores. Still, she poured her heart into her semifinal appearance.
Competing in the bee for the fourth and final time, Katharine approached the microphone and addressed pronouncer Jacques Bailly.
"Dr. Bailly, would you say we're old friends?" Wang said. "You think you could do me a favor and give me a word I actually know?"
Bailly didn't comply. The word was "periastron," which means the point in the orbit of a celestial body where it's nearest to its primary star.
But when Bailly gave the language of origin — Greek — Katharine stepped back and opened her mouth wide.
"Does this come from the Greek root 'peri,' meaning 'near' or something like that?" she asked. She spelled it right and ran excitedly back to her seat.
Her second and final appearance at the microphone wasn't so sweet. She misspelled "cinquecento," the 16th-Century period in Italian literature and art.
Told the correct spelling — she missed by a single letter — Katharine said, "Thought so."
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