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Seventh-grader takes her turn in National Spelling Bee

Visalia, Calif., resident Bridget Byerlee left her humongous dictionary at home this week. It’s awfully cumbersome to lug around, even for someone competing in the National Spelling Bee.

“It would have been too much to travel with,” Bridget said.

No matter. On Wednesday morning, the seventh-grader at George McCann Memorial Catholic School nailed the word “poignant” in the second round of the competition, after first taking a written test. In the afternoon, she correctly spelled “lebhaft,” a German-inflected musical direction to play fast.

Even so, the performance was not enough to advance Bridget to the semifinal rounds Thursday.

“I’ve done a lot of studying,” Bridget said before the public spelling began, “but I’m trying not to go completely crazy.”

Bridget and her competitors initially 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-school students, 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. The finals in the 85th annual event, formally called the Scripps National Spelling Bee, will be broadcast Thursday 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.

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 M.D. and Ph.D. degrees, 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.

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 this week in 6-year-old Lori Ann Madison of Virginia, the youngest-ever contestant, obliged the event’s 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 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, for a worldwide virtual audience, the spelling bee’s staff started delivering blow-by-blow accounts via Twitter; and for the 278 contestants, there is always the treat of the new.

“This hotel,” enthused Bridget, who is 13, “is really cool.”

Like many of her competitors, Bridget enjoys a span of interests that go well beyond competitive spelling. The first girl to win Tulare County’s spelling bee in 12 years, she participates in Academic Decathlon, “Battle of the Books,” Math Bowl and student government, among other activities. As for future endeavors, she’s keeping an open mind.

“There’s so much I want to do,” Bridget said. “I might want to do everything.”

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