NATIONAL HARBOR,Md. — Late in the afternoon on the first day of the 86th Scripps National Spelling Bee,first-time competitor Tarun Neelavannan was handling the pressure like a pro.
The soon-to-be seventh-grader at Dr. David L. Anderson Middle School in Stuart,Fla.,said he felt pretty good about the preliminary round Tuesday morning.
His confidence was well placed. Tarun correctly spelled “pizzicato,” (to play an instrument by plucking the strings),to advance to Round 3 to be held Wednesday afternoon.
This year marks the first time competitors have been required to know definitions for some of the words during the computer-based preliminaries. That small change made competing “a whole new experience,” Tarun said.
“I knew most of the words,except some of the words,it kind of took me off a little,” he said of the 50 words he tackled during the computer-based test. “I really just guessed on them.”
Tarun started studying for his school spelling bee last summer. When he took first place,he began preparing for regionals – sponsored by Treasure Coast Newspapers – which he handily won by spelling “rubicelle” (a red gemstone). Since then,he’s been spelling and defining daily in preparation for the national stage.
Like many of the 281 spellers gathered on the banks of the Potomac River south of Washington,Tarun loves to read. His favorite book is “The Call of the Wild” by Jack London,which combines two of Tarun’s likes: dogs and adventure.
Tarun’s father,Neelavannan Radha,said they’ve been studying out of a dictionary word by word for two to three hours on weekdays and five to six hours on weekends.
“You have to study more,you have to put in more time,” Neelavannan said. “It’s the highest level — I’ll just be happy whatever I get.”
While Tarun gave off a confident appearance Tuesday afternoon,he admitted to being a little anxious looking to the onstage spelling rounds on Wednesday.
“In my heart,I’m just really nervous — my heart is pounding every time I go up to spell a word,” he said.
“He’s nervous,” Radha said. “He can feel it,he does not show it.”
Despite the butterflies,Tarun said he knew how he would keep his cool onstage,even if he wasn’t 100 percent certain he knew the correct spelling of the word.
“I just think like,’Oh,just do your best,'” Tarun said. “And sometimes — you’ll just get away with it.”
In the evening before competition,Tarun planned some last-minute studying of regional spelling bee words — and he was looking forward to meeting the official pronouncer of the Scripps National Spelling Bee — Jacques Bailly.
When all is spelled and done,Tarun isn’t planning to pick up a dictionary again anytime soon. What’s the first thing he’s planning on doing after competition?
“I was going to start playing video games,” he said.
Wednesday’s rounds are being streamed on ESPN3 through 5:30 p.m. The semifinals on Thursday will be live on ESPN2 from noon to 5 p.m.,and the finals will be broadcast live on ESPN at 8 p.m.
Reach reporter Matt Nelson at [email protected] or 202-408-2735. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.