NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. • Chesterfield speller Gokul Venkatachalam survived into the final day of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, acing “perestroika” and “nouveau” to become one of 46 semifinalists moving into tougher competition on Thursday.
It’s the third straight year he has made the semifinals at the national championship of spellers, a three-day competition of words, letters and definitions between competitors aged 8 to 14.
Gokul is 13 and a seventh-grader at Parkway West Middle School, and he is sponsored by the Post-Dispatch. He and the other 45 semifinalists will compete starting at 9 a.m. Thursday on ESPN2. The finals will be shown live Thursday on ESPN, starting at 7 p.m.
Gokul said that he’s learned in three years of competition “that you can’t give up easily.”
He said he knew both words when he heard them, and that he was not nervous, despite the fact that he was the last of 139 spellers in his flight. During the morning competition, he said, he even caught a short “power nap” while closing his eyes onstage as other spellers stepped forward.
Gokul planned on preparing for the final day’s competition by watching an NBA playoff game between the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers. He plays guard on his school’s basketball team.
The competition has become more than just spelling. Gokul was among 223 contestants who spelled their words correctly in Wednesday’s third round. Those who had survived that round had scored the best on a written test, taken Tuesday, that included vocabulary aptitude.
And the live spelling itself is more than just words and letters; many contestants enjoy witty repartee with the pronouncer. The Bee has hired two comedy writers to write funny lines to describe words if the competitors ask them to be used in a sentence.
Jacques Bailly, the longtime word pronouncer and the 1980 bee winner, said that helps cut tension of nervous competitors, many of whom take deep breaths or spell out words on their palms before they begin their answers.
Gokul waded confidently into his final word Wednesday, asking, “Is this French?” He then spelled it quickly. He said later he did that to make sure not “to jump into it too fast and get it wrong.”
Bailly equates the national Bee with the competition of high-level sports teams, saying it gives competitors the opportunity to see the performance and dedication of other top-level scholars they may be going to college with in a few years.
“They’re excited for the moment” on the “national stage,” said Paige Kimble, Spelling Bee executive director, the 1981 winner.
“Very poised, too,” added Bailly.
The last St. Louis-area winner of the Bee was George Abraham Thampy, who won in 2000. He is a judge in this year’s competition, his third time.
Thampy, who graduated from Harvard with a chemistry degree, said the competition gave him “a realization I could do anything if I put my mind or focus to it.” He is now an administrative resident at St. Anthony’s Medical Center, and plans to get an MBA at Stanford.
The level of competition today is far beyond what it was for him in 2000, he said. “It’s impressive to see these kids succeed,” he said.
Perestroika was a reform movement in the latter days of the Soviet Union. Nouveau means newly arrived or developed.