Former finalists vie for National Spelling Bee championship

Shradha Rachamreddy reacts after missing a word during the semifinals. MUST CREDIT: Matt McClain/The Washington Post

Speller No. 4 didn’t have much time to be nervous before it was her turn at the microphone Wednesday. She rose from her seat and stepped forward.

The word that greeted Aliyah Alpert in the quarterfinals of the 2024 Scripps National Spelling Bee was heresiology.

She exhaled slowly. She knew this one.

She enunciated each letter one at a time. The competition hall at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center at National Harbor was quiet.

H-e-r-e-s-i-o-l-o-g-y,” she said.

Shradha Rachamreddy, 14, of Danville, Calif., left, and Aliyah Alpert, 13, of Phoenix, leave the stage following the quarterfinals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee at Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center on Wednesday in National Harbor. MUST CREDIT: Matt McClain/The Washington Post

“That is correct,” head judge Mary Brooks said as the audience burst into applause.

Aliyah smiled.

The eighth-grader from Phoenix was one of six returning finalists jockeying for the 2024 title in the 95th year of the bee. As the competition wore on, speller after speller stepped to the microphone. The clink of the elimination bell ended many of their efforts.

Dr. Jacques Bailly, center, is the national bee’s longtime pronouncer and its 1980 champion. MUST CREDIT: Matt McClain/The Washington Post

Each time a contestant was eliminated, Aliyah held out her hand for a congratulatory high-five. But as chairs emptied around her, her unease grew.

“There were a lot of words I didn’t know,” she said later. “That makes me so nervous.”

This is not Aliyah’s first national bee. She made it as a finalist to the eighth round of competition in 2022, where she was knocked out by ajivika, a Sanskrit word for a school of Indian philosophy.

But now Aliyah was about to age out of the competition. This was her last chance to vie for the chance to claim the brightly painted Scripps Cup and $50,000 in winnings. And the competition was fierce.

Shradha Rachamreddy, 14, of Danville, Calif. MUST CREDIT: Matt McClain/The Washington Post

Shradha Rachamreddy, 14, seated just a few chairs to the right of Aliyah, had been favored to win.

But by the end of the semifinals Wednesday, only one former finalist remained.

Two hundred and forty-five spellers took the stage this week. They were from all 50 states as well as D.C., Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Ghana sent a contingent of three students to compete.

In the Hallway of Champions, former winners were immortalized in colorful banners hung from the ceiling. Attendees, parents and supporters hunched over tables making posters and writing encouraging notes they pinned to panels outside the main event:

“Proud of every speller!”

“Just making it here is a huge accomplishment.”

“Eat your Wheaties and say your prayers!”

Several competitors from the D.C. region, including Navya Dwivedi, 13, of Columbia, Md.; and Nargiza Muzhapaer, 13, of Merrifield, Va.; made it to the semifinals. But by the end of the day Wednesday, all local spellers had been eliminated.

Nargiza, a seventh-grader, had never competed in a national bee. Her father, Muzaffar Mirzat, said she’d been a bundle of nerves before the quarterfinals started Wednesday morning.

Family members cheer on spellers during the quarterfinals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. MUST CREDIT: Matt McClain/The Washington Post

As he watched his daughter correctly spell word after word, Mirzat teetered on the edge of his seat. He could barely believe how far she was advancing, he said. When the announcer gave her the word schlich, he watched as she puzzled out its German roots.

Then, she nailed it.

“I’m just so proud,” he said.

Throughout the day, parents trailed after their children through the event halls. Some consoled tearful spellers after painful eliminations. Others folded their competitors into group hugs.

The semifinals began Wednesday afternoon with 45 spellers left in the running, five of whom were former national finalists.

As a booming voice echoed through the competition hall – “30 seconds,” it announced – Aliyah grimaced, her hands folded tightly in her lap.

“Our first speller is from Phoenix, Arizona,” announced Jacques Bailly, the national bee’s longtime pronouncer and its 1980 champion.

Aliyah Alpert sports a bee-themed dress. MUST CREDIT: Matt McClain/The Washington Post

As Aliyah stepped slowly to center stage, the crowd fell silent.

Her next word: atticotomy.

She asked for the definition (a surgical incision to the small upper part of the middle ear), its language of origin (Greek) and for any alternate pronunciations (none).

Aliyah looked up, scanning the ceiling as she thought.

“Does this contain the Greek root Attica meaning a place?” Aliyah asked.

“You’re on the right track,” Bailly said.

Aliyah’s eyes widened. “Wait,” she said, “really?”

A-t-t-i-c-o-t-o-m-y?” she guessed.

“That is correct,” the judge said.

As music played and the judges gathered more words for another round, Aliyah swung her legs from her chair and chatted with Shradha, 14, of Danville, Calif.

Both girls were taking their final runs at a championship. And they were so close.

Then came the eighth round and with it Shradha’s first misspelling, and Aliyah’s biggest fear: a word she didn’t know.

It was omao. Its origin is Hawaiian. It is, Bailly said, a type of bird.

The audience held its collective breath. Aliyah closed her eyes, fingers moving as if typing on an invisible keyboard.

O-m-a-u?” she offered.

She sensed she was wrong as soon as the letters had left her lips.

Her eyes fell, her head shook slightly.

Then, the bell rang.



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