OXON HILL, Md. - She looks like her sister. She spells like her sister, tracing the letters on her palm as she calls out the letters. Her goal is become the back half of the first set of sibling champions in National Spelling Bee history.
Eleven-year-old Vanya Shivashankar of Olathe, Kan., qualified Wednesday for the semifinals of the 86th Scripps National Spelling Bee. She handled "intaglio" and "horologium" with no problem.
"My sister's more like a bubbly person," said Vanya's sister, 2009 champion Kavya Shivashankar. "You can see that onstage, that she's really excited to be there. I think I felt the same way, but it just showed differently."
Forty-two of the 281 spellers advanced, having tallied the most points in a formula that combined Wednesday's onstage rounds with a computer test that included a section on vocabulary for the first time. Officials originally announced 41 semifinalists, but added one more after a review of the written test. The semifinals are Thursday afternoon, with the finals set for Thursday night. The winner gets $30,000 in cash and prizes and a huge trophy.
Making the cut are several returning favorites, including a speller with a sibling story similar to the Shivashankars. Thirteen-year-old Arvind Mahankali of New York, who finished third each of the last two years, is getting eager support from 9-year-old brother Srinath.
Two years ago, Arvind hilariously mispronounced "Jugendstil" as "You could steal" and saluted the crowd after he misspelled the word. Now he's more bit more low-key and appears unfazed by anything, while Srinath talks up a storm and playfully bragged he will need only one year to win the title once he makes the national bee.
Eighteen spellers at this year's bee have at least one relative who has competed previously. Vanya, who tied for 10th last year, isn't the only one with a chance to make sibling history this year: 13-year-old Ashwin Veeramani of North Royalton, Ohio, is the brother of 2010 winner Anamika Veeramani.
A win by Vanya, Arvind or Ashwin would continue the recent tradition of Indian-American winners. There have been five in a row and 10 of 14, a run that started in 1999 when Nupur Lala captured the title in 1999 and was later featured in the documentary "Spellbound."
Onstage, Arvind breezed through his two words — "euphemism" and "belemnoid" — and he was one of only three spellers to get a perfect score on the computer test. The others are 14-year-old Grace Remmer of St. Augustine, Fla., and 13-year-old Pranav Sivakumar of Tower Lakes, Ill.
The other top 10 speller from last year, 14-year-old Rachael Cundey of Evans, Ga., also advanced. She's in the national bee for the fifth time, as is 14-year-old semifinalist Emily Keaton of Pikeville, Ky., who has her own sibling wish in her last year of eligibility.
"I hope my brother gets into it," Emily said. "If Paul gets into it, I'll be here next year and the next."
The day opened with the word "glasnost" and was soon followed by "perestroika" — language from the Cold War-era for a group of youngsters born long after the heyday of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.
Twenty spellers breezed through words such as "mandir," "Eocene" and "tertiary" before the telltale bell rang for the first time when Alan Shi of Irvine, Calif., put an "s" instead of a "c" at the start of "cynosure."
The spellers came from all 50 states as well as Canada, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, China, Ghana, Italy, American Samoa, the Bahamas and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The youngest was 8-year-old Tara Singh of Louisville, Ky., who did not qualify for the semifinals. Last year there was a 6-year-old — Lori Anne Madison, the youngest speller ever to qualify — but she did not win her regional bee this year.
There was also a blind speller, 12-year-old Richelle Zampella from Muskogee, Okla. Richelle took the computer test in Braille and correctly spelled "capricious" and "trianon" onstage, but did not score high enough on the computer test to make the semifinals.
The daylong tension was evident, but there was also comic relief. When given the word "entourage," Abirami Ratnakumar of Seneca Falls, N.Y., asked: "Can you draw me a picture of the word?"
Pronouncer Jacques Bailly replied: "I'm not that good at drawing."
For a change of pace, there was 13-year-old Katie Denis of Gastonia, N.C., who asked the judges: "Would you mind if I were to sing the letters? It would help me."
They said fine, as long as they could understand them.
Katie then sang the letters to "stabilimeter" — and got it right.
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