Kavya Shivashankar offers some big-sister advice ahead of National Spelling Bee

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. - Kavya Shivashankar, who won the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 2009, had some advice for her younger sister, Vanya, as she prepared for Tuesday's Round One written test.

"Keep calm and have fun with it; enjoy the experience," the Olathe, Kan., high school junior said.

That's easier said by a past champion than done by a 10-year-old. But some version of that message was communicated more than once in the hotel corridors before each of the 278 regional winners took a 50-word spelling exam, of which 25 words count for points.

On Wednesday morning, each contestant will take the stage in the huge Maryland Ballroom of the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center south of Washington. Combined scores from the written test and the onstage performance will determine the 50 or so spellers who advance to the semifinals Thursday morning.

This is the 85th annual Scripps Bee, a tradition that began in 1925 and took a couple of years off during World War II.. Two of this year's contestants are returning for their fifth time, four for their fourth and 14 for their third time.

Malie Queta Curren, 12, of the Teton Valley in southeast Idaho, was just hoping she wouldn't forget her word list. Her mother, Mary Eich Curren, said it was the family's first time in the nation's capital.

Casey Ellis, 11, of Amarillo, Texas, won her regional meet -- consisting of spellers from 26 counties in the Texas Panhandle and Oklahoma -- and breezed through the written test in just 15 minutes. "I knew a lot" of the words, she told her dad, Mike, a middle school band director.

Valery Nguyen-Au, 13, of Memphis, who also speaks Chinese and Vietnamese, by contrast took more than an hour. "Some of them were easy and some were words I didn't know," she acknowledged. Valery, said she has now put away the practice word list and is ready for the live coverage beginning Wednesday morning on ESPN3.com.

"It's nerve-wracking but also exhilarating in equal measure," said 2000 Bee champion George Thampy, who graduated from Harvard University in 2010 and now works at a Chicago-based private equity firm. His sister, starting her residency in general surgery, competed in the National Bee in 2002 and 2003.

Indications that the spellers have reached the big time are all around. Banners with photos of past national champions hang from the ceiling, along with their winning words. Just above where the spellers check in is one featuring 1970s winner Libby Childress of Winston-Salem, N.C. She won with "croissant."

Last year's winner, Sukanya Roy of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., correctly spelled "cymotrichous," which means having wavy hair.

This year, spellers are competing for a $30,000 cash prize and a trophy as well as for a kind of immortality. The Bee's official pronouncer, Jacques Bailly, a professor of classics at the University of Vermont, won in 1980 with "elucubrate," a particularly apt word that means to work out or express by studious effort.

Many of the contestants are wandering around the cavernous hotel in bright orange T-shirts bearing a word of dubious coinage: "Spellebrity." Others show off a sort of nerdy independence with T-shirts reading, "This is my lucky shirt," "Can I please have the definition?" and "This is my dress shirt."

Coleman Swartzfager, 11, of Shelby, Miss., wore the lucky Superman shirt he donned when he won the Mid-South Spelling Bee in Memphis, Tenn. -- but underneath an orange polo shirt.

"Feel like your brain's been in a blender?" Coleman's mother, Margaret, asked when he emerged from the written test, feeling his forehead as if expecting a fever.

Siblings and parents have the anxious looks of people for whom this is a national recognition of their spellers' likely future success. Not just the winner, but anyone who has reached this level has shown that kind of promise, said Thampy.

As she waited for her daughter to finish Tuesday's test, Phuong Nguyen-Au admitted, "I think I'm more nervous than she is."

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