Nine contestants to vie for National Spelling Bee championship

WASHINGTON Thu May 31, 2012 6:18pm EDT

1 of 4. Lena Greenberg of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania celebrates spelling her word correctly, and advancing to the final round, during the Scripps National Spelling Bee semi-finals May 31, 2012 at National Harbor, Maryland.

Credit: Reuters/Gary Cameron

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Nine contestants for the Scripps National Spelling Bee survived preliminary rounds to make the final on Thursday, including a New York City 12-year-old who tied for third last year.

The day started with fifty young spellers, aged 10 to 14, and was winnowed down to nine after contestants were tripped up by words such as "tendenz," a literary term and "polynee," a type of pastry.

They spelled words on stage at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland, just south of Washington, D.C. The audience, filled with the families, was tense as the young contestants haltingly spelled words well above the reading levels of their respective grades.

The bee began with 278 contestants and was reduced to 50 in preliminary rounds on Wednesday. The nine finalists had to survive three more semi-final rounds on Thursday.

The final rounds are on Thursday evening.

One of the nine finalists is Arvind Mahankali, a slight 12-year-old from New York City who tied for third place in last year's contest.

While waiting for his turn in the last round, Mahankali sat in his chair covering his head with his hands. He then correctly spelled "phrontistery," a place for thinking or studying, giving a high-five to fellow spellers as he returned to his seat.

Lena Greenberg, 14, of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania shifted in front of the microphone and seemed to guess as she spelled "cholecystitis," inflammation of the gallbladder.

She seemed surprised she had spelled the word correctly, gasping and covering her mouth with her hands while her mother cheered from the audience.

The spellers employed a range of strategies, from writing out words on the palms of their hand with their finger to asking for a word's language of origin.

The final competition, which will be aired live on the ESPN Sports network, got 952,000 tuned in to watch the finals, according to ESPN spokeswoman Ashley O'Connor.

The spelling bee champion wins a $30,000 cash prize, a $2,500 U.S. savings bond and a $5,000 scholarship, among other prizes, according to the Scripps website.

"YEAH, I DIDN'T THINK SO"

Several spellers who had been favored to do well stumbled on Thursday.

Ten-year-old Vanya Shivashankar of Olathe Kansas, the younger sister of 2009 champion Kavya Shivashankar, misspelled "pejerrey," a type of fish.

Nabeel Rahman, 14, of Buffalo, New York, who placed 10th in last year's bee, was also eliminated after misspelling "tirthankara," a term used in the religion Jainism.

Vaidya Govindarajan, 14, from Miami, Florida, who tied for 9th place in the 2010 Scripps National Spelling Bee was eliminated after misspelling "polynee," a type of pastry.

"Yeah, I didn't think so," he said, after a bell went off to signal he had made a mistake.

Six-year-old Lori Anne Madison of Woodbridge, Virginia, the youngest participant ever to qualify for the bee, failed to make it past the preliminary round after incorrectly spelling the word "ingluvies," the crop of a bird or insect.

Jacques Bailly, a 1980 Bee champion and the official pronouncer of the Bee will read the words for contestants at the final round.

Last year's winner was 14-year-old Sukanya Roy from South Abington Township, Pennsylvania, who spelled "cymotrichous," used to describe having wavy hair.

(Reporting by Lily Kuo; Editing by Greg McCune)

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