WASHINGTON — Cara Busheme took a deep breath, closed her eyes and pictured the letters appearing in her own handwriting, one-by-one above her. "C- H- A- E," she started, correctly spelling chaetophorous a word of Greek origin, meaning bearing bristles.
The 13-year-old Boynton Beach girl smiled all the way to her seat after perfectly spelling her second word in the preliminary rounds of the Scripps National Spelling Bee outside Washington, D.C., Wednesday. (The first was mercerize.) But she was nonetheless knocked out of the competition.
Semifinalists were chosen based on their performance in two trips to the stage and on a computerized spelling test of 50 words, given the most weight. Fifty spellers advanced to the semifinals, to be held Thursday morning, based on those scores.
This year's bee featured the youngest speller in history, 6-year-old Lori Anne Madison, from a Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C. She also was eliminated in the preliminary rounds.
The sight of kids as young as 6 spelling mind-bending words is so captivating that ESPN broadcasts the finals during prime time Thursday night. The winner earns $30,000 and the admiration of his peers, some of whom made studying for the bee a full-time job.
Cara landed her spot among 278 spellers during only her second try at competitive spelling. Some spellers literally page through Merriam-Webster's dictionary, spending hours learning word-by-word.
Cara prepared for the bee using a spelling app. She sandwiched in study time each day around math tests, playing the flute, and being a normal 13-year-old.
"I put it where I could fit it," said Cara, who also loves SCUBA diving, painting and making jewelry.
Lameece Gregorchik, Cara's language arts teacher at Christa McAuliffe Middle, said Cara is clearly gifted with language.
When the class is playing a word game, Cara is "difficult to stump," Gregorchik said. "I try to give the other children a chance first."
Cara's mom helped drill her on some words, half of which Mary Buchanan couldn't pronounce.
Cara giggles at the memory of her mother mispronouncing Rhinoceros, calling it reeno saurus, after one spelling session dragged on too long.
"It's really, really funny when she mispronounces them," Cara said.
Aside from preparation, luck is perhaps the next biggest factor in determining who performs well at the bee. Some spellers got commonly known words, like fraught or litany. Others drew kyoodle, to bark, or salaam, "a very low bow, especially with the palm of the right hand placed on the forehead."
Many of the words are of Latin or Greek origin, and have predictable spelling patterns that competitors can rely on if they haven't memorized the spelling of the word. Spellers can ask for the origin or etymology of the word. They can ask for alternate pronunciations and to hear it in a sentence.
Some words have been shaped by a complex history. Take the word Croesus, which the pronouncer described as a Lydian name that passed through Greek and then Latin before English, as if that explanation might help.
Given that origin, Speller 28, Katharine Wang, thought she might trick the pronouncer. "Could you tell me how to spell that please," she deadpanned.
The usually silent audience broke into laughter. Katharine went on to properly spell Damoclean.
While Cara won't go on to spell again Thursday morning, she said she's already experienced the trip of a lifetime.
She learned plenty of multisyllabic words of Greek or Arabic derivation as she prepared for the bee.
When summing up her trip, however, she quickly fell into 13-year-old-speak.
"Amazing, wonderful, fantastic, awesome," she said. "It is just so much fun."