In his fifth and final National Spelling Bee, Nicholas Rushlow had little reason to be nervous.
The 14-year-old eighth grader from Pickerington, Ohio, strutted confidently to the microphone in a preliminary round on Wednesday morning, high-fiving a fellow competitor who'd just missed a word. After greeting pronouncer Jacques Bailly and asking for the definition of "Gabbai" -- a minor synagogue official -- he spelled it with ease and gave a smile and a nod.
Rushlow has made it to the Scripps National Spelling Bee every year since 2008, although he's never made the finals. His best showing was a 14th-place finish last year. This is his last chance. Next year, he'll be too old.
While Rushlow was clearly at ease, the speller before him, Veto Lopez, exemplified how agonizing the competition can be. He paused for several seconds before starting to spell "blase," then stopped even longer in the middle of the word, cracking his knuckles and glancing at the television lights above him, before misspelling it.
There are 278 spellers participating in the preliminary rounds, and each will spell two words onstage Wednesday. Their scores are combined with a 50-word computer test they took Tuesday, and no more than 50 will advance to Thursday's semifinals. The finals are Thursday night.
The winner of the 85th Scripps National Spelling Bee gets $30,000 in cash, a trophy, a $2,500 savings bond, a $5,000 scholarship, $2,600 in reference works from the Encyclopedia Britannica and an online language course.
Although spellers aren't automatically eliminated for missing a word onstage during the preliminary rounds, it's all but impossible to advance without getting both words right.
Among those who got through the first word unscathed: 6-year-old Lori Anne Madison of Lake Ridge, Va., the youngest speller ever to qualify for the bee. She spelled "dirigible" with apparent ease after asking for the definition and hearing it used in a sentence. On the way back to her seat, she shared high-fives with several spellers.
Two of last year's finalists got through tough words: Nabeel Rahman of Buffalo, N.Y., spelled "coloratura" -- a word for florid decorations in vocal music -- and Arvind Mahankali of Bayside Hills, N.Y., got "garibaldi" - a loose blouse inspired by an Italian revolutionary leader.
Samuel Estep of Berryville, Va., also a finalist last year, spelled "tahini."
Among the words that tripped up spellers Wednesday morning: "limpid," "dragoon" and "maraud." Twenty-five words were misspelled in the morning round.
Displays of emotion were mostly muted, but Reid FitzHugh of Rockville, Md., clenched both fists after getting "ocarina," a flute-like instrument. Michael Reiner of Salem, Ohio, struggled with the pronunciation of "fete" before spelling it correctly and gave an emphatic fist pump before rolling his wheelchair away from the microphone. And Lena Greenberg of Philadelphia sprinted back to her chair and buried her face in her hands after spelling "jong," a South African word for friend.
Spellers admit there's some luck involved in the early rounds. Coralee LaRue, 11, of Vineyard Haven, Mass., felt relieved to be given "inviolable" and spelled it confidently. LaRue had finished second in her regional bee two years running before making the national bee this year.
But she wasn't as thrilled with the computer test as with her experience on stage.
"That was hard. There were a few that I just hadn't heard before," LaRue said. "Some, I just had to guess."