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OXON HILL, Md.: A spelling ran off stage in the middle of her time on the mic, saying she needed to pee. Another tried to return to her seat after spelling her first word correctly, only to remember she had a vocabulary word next. During one particularly brutal streak, 10 consecutive spellers heard the bell signaling the elimination.
The Scripps National Spelling Bee began with a handshake. Now it starts with a slap in the face.
Leaner and meaner in its post-pandemic iteration, the bee returned to its usual place on Tuesday for the first time in three years, and the spellers were greeted with a new preliminary round format that didn’t let them down. time to get comfortable.
“Foreplay is no joke. Every step of the bee is so important,” said Dhroov Bharatia, a 13-year-old from Plano, Texas, who finished fourth last year.

Yash Tushar Shelar, an 8th grader at Sacred Heart Academy in St. Charles, Missouri, reacts after completing the preliminary round of the Spelling Bee contest. (Reuters)

In years past, early stage spelling tricks have done little more than weed out weaker or more nervous spellers. The real action was a written test that determined who would make the cut for the semi-finals.
But at last year’s mostly virtual bee, the bee’s new executive director eliminated the test, and that structure continued as 229 spellers took the stage for this year’s all-in-person contest. year. Eighty-eight of those scorers qualified for Wednesday’s quarter-finals, a success rate of 38%.
Spellers had to pass three words in one turn on the microphone to continue in the bee. First, they received one word from a crowded list of 4,000 – more than twice as many as in previous years. Then they had to answer a multiple-choice vocabulary question on a word from the same list. Finally, they had to spell a word that could be found anywhere in Webster’s Unabridged dictionary.
Annie-Lois Acheampong, one of Ghana’s three spellers, didn’t go that far on her first try. She successfully worked on 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 keep still, it was clear that something else was going on.

Annie-Lois Acheampong from Accra, Ghana. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

“I think I’m going to pee myself,” the 13-year-old eighth grader said. “Can I take a pee? I’m really sorry.”
She rushed off stage before getting a response from the stunned judges, who interrupted the competition and discussed how to handle the situation.
“It was a first,” Chief Justice Mary Brooks, who has cared for the bee for 50 years, later said.
The judges ultimately decided to let Annie-Lois return after the last scheduled spell of the day. She nailed her replacement vocabulary word, but hesitated over the spelling of “apery” to wrap up the day’s action. Although Annie-Lois could have been eliminated for going over the 30-second time limit for the previous vocabulary question, Brooks said the spelling clock was paused because she was experiencing a legitimate emergency.
There is precedent for pausing the clock during what Brooks called “extenuating circumstances”, most notably in 2004 when Akshay Buddiga passed out on stage but recovered to finish in second place.
West Blocton, Alabama’s Braydon Syx may not go that far, but his appearance on the microphone on Tuesday summed up the gripping new drama of the early rounds.
The 13-year-old seventh grader made his first plane flight 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’, then took a long, excruciating pause before spitting out the last three letters. He stretched his arms out to his sides after identifying the definition of the word “tremulous” – not a bad description of his behavior on the microphone.
“It was really scary,” Braydon said, “but I also felt really happy at the same time. It was a weird feeling.”

Braydon Syx, 13, stretches with relief as he correctly spells a second word. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Then came “brome” – any herb of a large genus of herbs native to temperate regions. Something in the word bothered him.
“Can you say it again?” He asked.
“Can you repeat it another time?”
He took a deep breath. “Can you say it one more time?”
Afterwards, Braydon explained his dilemma: “On ‘bromegrass’, I didn’t know if he pronounced it with an ‘m’ or an ‘n’.”
Still, through a combination of hard work, luck, and perseverance, Braydon will be out again on Wednesday.
Akira Harris will not be so lucky. The eighth-grade student at a Ministry of Defense middle school in Stuttgart, Germany, started by spelling “rednigote” correctly, then turned and walked back to her seat.

Akira S. Harris, an 8th grader at Patch Middle School in Stuttgart, Germany, steps out during the preliminary round of the spelling bee. (REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein)

“Akira, we need you to make your word mean round,” a judge told her.
She stood silently, looking miserable, after being given three potential definitions of the word “bandicoot”. She made a guess – “A?” – before she was told she had to read the multiple-choice answer under that letter, which was wrong.
Akira came back into the audience and buried her head in her mother’s shoulder. Once his spelling group was done, Akira made another straight – this time for exits.

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