OXON HILL, Md. • After nearly reaching the finals at the Scripps National Spelling Bee last year, Gokul Venkatachalam resolved to go even further this week.
Gokul, 12, is well on his way. He is one of just 42 spellers out of 281 who took the stage Wednesday to qualify for today’s semifinals.
No other spellers from Missouri or Southern Illinois remain in the event.
“Hard work has paid off,” said Gokul, a student at Parkway West Middle School. “I’m pleased right now, but later I’ll probably be nervous.”
Gokul is sponsored by the Post-Dispatch. He is the son of Venkatachalam Krishnan and Sreepriya Vaidynathan of Chesterfield
“He worked hard and he’s seeing the fruits of all that hard work,” said his father.
Last year, Gokul was one of 24 fifth-graders competing against older spellers in the competition near Washington.
Immediately after returning home, he began studying his online dictionary even more diligently — two hours every weekday, three hours on Saturday and then another three hours on Sunday.
He enjoys delving into the root of a word and then discovering what other words derive from that root.
Gokul qualified for the national competition by outlasting 33 other contestants at the 27th Annual St. Louis Post-Dispatch Spelling Bee.
On stage Wednesday, he correctly spelled “accommodate” and “sylph” (a slender, graceful woman or girl). His flawless spelling in the event, combined with his success on a computerized test on Tuesday, enabled him to score enough points to advance.
Spellers got a surprise this year when told of a rule change in which vocabulary knowledge would become part of the competition for the first time in the bee’s 86-year-old history.
Paige Kimble, executive director of the bee, said the change was designed “to recommit the bee to its purpose” — helping students increase their vocabulary skills and develop correct English usage.
Gokul said he didn’t mind the change. For one thing, it will help with the SAT college entrance exams — which he already is thinking about in the sixth grade.
“It’s a new challenge. It makes it more difficult, but in the end I think it will be helpful,” he said.
In their written exams on Tuesday, spellers were asked word meanings alongside spelling questions. Gokul correctly defined “equilibrium” and “gulden” (an outmoded unit of money).
On Wednesday night, remaining spellers took another 45-minute exam. The scores will be important in determining which dozen or so spellers advance to the finals.
Thus far, Gokul has suffered only one setback in his return to the national competition: He lost his Miami Heat cap on a bus, no small matter when you’re a devoted fan during the conclusion to the National Basketball Association season.
He bought a New York Knicks cap because, he said, it best matched his blue T-shirt. As a sixth-grader committed to precision in sports as well as spelling, he quickly added that he was no Knicks fan.
The semifinal round this afternoon, at 1 p.m. St. Louis time, will be broadcast on ESPN3; the championship round will air at 7 p.m. on ESPN. The winner will receive more than $30,000 in cash and prizes.
The last local winner was George Abraham Thampy, of St. Louis, who correctly spelled “demarche” in the final round to capture the 2000 national spelling crown.