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Sacramento-area student returns to National Spelling Bee

Sacramento, Calif.,-area student Jack Maglalang entered the 2012 National Spelling Bee with the savoir-faire of a seasoned veteran.

At the very least, the sixth-grader at Orangevale’s Pershing Elementary School knew the lay of the land, having competed in last year’s Bee as well. This time around, as one of 278 spellers to take the stage, Jack felt much more prepared.

“It’s still nerve-wracking,” Jack said, “but it doesn’t feels as huge as last year.”

Jack’s grace under pressure showed first thing Wednesday morning, as he nailed “fugleman” in the second round of the competition. Google it, or go old-school with an actual dictionary, and discover the word means a leader, or, originally, a soldier who stands as a role model for others.

In the third round, Jack missed the word “Labanotation,” a term for a system used to record human movement. Combined with the score from an earlier written test, this meant Jack was knocked out of the contest that concludes with the semifinals and finals Thursday. He was pretty disappointed with himself, at first, but then some minutes passed and things didn’t seem permanently bad.

“I can relax now, and have fun in D.C.,” Jack said, and “there’s probably going to be no more studying for a while.”

Jack and his competitors first confronted a 50-word preliminary test Tuesday, delivered individually via computer and headphones. Only 25 of the words counted; but the spellers, who ranged in age from an audience-charming 6-year-old to several 15-year-old high-schoolers, didn’t know which ones those were.

The scores from the preliminary test were combined with the results from the second and third rounds conducted in public on Wednesday to yield 50 semi-finalists who advanced to Thursday’s rounds. The finals in the 85th annual event, formally called the Scripps National Spelling Bee, will be broadcast on ESPN starting at 5 p.m. PST.

By reaching the semifinals, students earn gift cards worth $600, in addition to a dictionary on CD-ROM. The winner receives financial prizes totaling $37,500, as well as other goodies. Students knocked out Wednesday receive $100 gift cards and dictionary.

Although the fundamentals have stayed the same, the atmosphere has become flashier since Sacramento student Rageshree Ramachandran won the national championship in 1988 with her spelling of the word “elegiacal.” An eventual Stanford graduate who went on to earn both an M.D. and Ph.D., Ramachandran remains the only resident of California’s Central Valley to win the national spelling competition.

“Now, there are additional opportunities for academically oriented kids, but in 1988, the National Spelling Bee and the spelling bee circuit in general were some of the only outlets for kids who wanted to take on an interesting, reading-related activity outside of school,” Ramachandran said in an e-mail Wednesday, adding that her victory was “life-changing in some ways.”

Boosted in part by television and the 2002 documentary “Spellbound,” the number of contestants in the national bee has risen by about 25 percent since Ramachandran’s turn in the spotlight. Each year brings a new star. The overwhelming media interest in 6-year-old Lori Ann Madison of Virginia, the youngest-ever contestant, obliged organizers set up her own 30-minute news conference for Thursday morning.

The event itself has moved from a downtown Washington, D.C., hotel to the relatively remote Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, in a Maryland location far from any monument or, for that matter, public transportation. On the other hand, the Bee’s staff has started delivering blow-by-blow accounts via Twitter.

A piano-playing, baseball-pitching high performer with a black belt in karate, Jack first took on competitive spelling as a fourth-grader. He wanted to try something different, he said. The first year went okay; nothing great. Last year, he won the Central Valley competition and made it to what’s now formally called the Scripps National Spelling Bee. If he wants to, he can try again next year; he still has several years of eligibility.

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