WASHINGTON - With a touch of "serendipity," the search for a champion speller was under way.
Fourteen-year-old Allison Black of Ider, Ala., looking just a tad nervous in her pink blouse and black skirt, stepped to the microphone Thursday morning and spelled the word correctly to kick off the oral rounds of the 83rd Scripps National Spelling Bee.
The 273 spellers from across the U.S. and around the world are vying for the winner's trophy and more than $40,000 in cash and prizes. The champion will be crowned Friday night in prime-time on national television.
Each of the youngsters -- ranging in age from 8 to 15 -- got to spell two words onstage under the bright lights of the Grand Hyatt ballroom. The results would be combined with their written test on Wednesday to determine the approximately 50 semifinalists.
Thursday offered a chance to see a variety of spellers with varying accents, senses of fashion and spelling styles that ranged from serious to somber to lively and even humorous. The speller from China, 13-year-old Jacky Qiao, grabbed a firm hold of the microphone with his right hand and intensely spelled "recidivist" -- then celebrated with a huge wave of both arms as he headed back to his seat.
Darren Sackey made sure everyone knew he had come a long way to take part in the bee -- he wore a bright yellow shirt with the word "GHANA" across the front. The 13-year-old from Accra, Ghana, used the tried and true method of tracing the word on the back of his placard before correctly spelling "camandante."
For the second straight year, bee pronouncer Jacques Bailly helped lighten the mood with his laugh-out-loud sentences. When 10-year-old Margaret Peterson from Granger, Ind., wanted to know more about the word "raita" -- a type of Indian salad -- Bailly responded: "Asking Preston to be patient was like ordering raita at a Taco Bell."
Margaret spelled the word correctly.
The youngest speller -- 8-year-old Vanya Shivashankar of Olathe, Kan. -- looked right at home. She was on the same stage a year ago, helping her sister and 2009 champion Kavya celebrate.
Vanya, barely 4 feet tall and wearing a gray and white striped hoodie, greeted Bailly confidently with her hands on her hips. She then mimicked her sister's spelling style -- tracing the word on her palm -- and correctly spelled "euthanasia."
Then there was 14-year-old Bianca James of Lafayette, La., who sought mercy as she walked up to the mic, looked at Bailly and pleaded: "Please be nice to me, doctor."
"I'll try," Bailly answered.
Bianca let out a huge sigh when Bailly gave her the word "dissonant," but she spelled it correctly and gave two thumbs up to the audience.
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