Two students from Southern California schools have advanced to the final rounds of the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
Cooper Komatsu, 13, a student at Culver City Middle School, and Aisha Randhawa, 10, a student at Garretson Elementary School in Corona, will be among 45 finalists taking the stage Thursday morning.
Of the 285 spellers in the preliminary rounds Wednesday, 10 hailed from Southern California, and all but one of those contestants spelled their words correctly on stage.
The young competitors tackled words like “polity,” “mobocrat,” “menticide,” “hellebore,” “apologue,” “sarment,” “tragopan” and “ablaut.”
It wasn’t enough for some. The preliminary rounds were single-elimination, but in order to whittle the finalists down to 50 or fewer, the judges reviewed a written spelling and vocabulary test the competitors took during what was in fact the very first round of competition on Tuesday.
The written test included the words "chiropodist," "geminate," "enshroud," "sundry," "tapetum," "polysemy," "hematorrhachis," "fouetté," "Nynorsk," and other frightful selections.
Only Komatsu and Randhawa’s scores were high enough to move them into the finals.
Ali Hussain, 13, of El Centro, was eliminated in Round Two after he misspelled the word “chanoyu,” the word for the Japanese tea ceremony.
In the third round, Komatsu correctly spelled “adventitious,” an adjective describing something that happens by chance rather than by design. His previous word, also spelled correctly, was “tagasaste,” a small evergreen tree indigenous to the Canary Islands. Komatsu is competing for his second time.
In Round Two, Randhawa, a first-time competitor, correctly spelled “colcannon,” an Irish and Scottish dish of boiled cabbage and potatoes. She followed that with the correct spelling of “discountenance.”
The difficulty of some of these words should be enough to prove to even the casual observer how hard these kids worked to make it this far.
Valerie Miller, the spokeswoman for the spelling bee, said many of the competitors spend months and even years studying and training in a “relentless pursuit” to get to the national stage.
“It’s that commitment. It’s the grit and the grind of months and years of preparation that lead us to our champion,” Miller told KPCC.
Many of the past winners are not first-timers, and some don’t take the title until their fourth or even fifth competition, Miller said.
The winner will take home a $40,000 cash prize from Scripps, a $2,500 U.S. savings bond and a complete reference library from Merriam-Webster and a trip to New York City to appear on “LIVE with Kelly,” and some small prizes.
The champion’s school and sponsor will be honored with engraved plaques.
The Scripps National Spelling Bee introduced some minor changes to the rules this year after input from fans and spellers, according to Miller. After two consecutive years ending in a tie, the rules have been changed in a compromise that doesn’t eliminate the possibility of a tie outright but makes it harder for it to happen, she said.
Before, judges pulled from a single list of 25 pre-approved words when the competition came down to the final two or three contestants. If both contestants misspell a word at that level, they each get to go again, until one person spells a word right and one spells a word wrong. Under that scenario, a pair of excellent spellers can burn through the list pretty fast.
Moving forward, the final contestants are allowed to go 25 additional rounds. For each round, each contestant gets a word, so that could double the number of words included in the final showdown.
In addition, judges are now allowed more flexibility in selecting words, Miller said. Last year, words were chosen months in advance. Now, the judges can increase the difficulty level to respond to the ability of the spellers.
Miller was somewhat coy about how Scripps decides on the difficulty of the words.
“How we choose our words, we like to think of it as our secret sauce,” she said. “It’s kind of the inside part of the Scripps National Spelling Bee that we don’t share a lot about.”
The other competitors from Southern California were Kaylee Kim of Fort Irwin, Samuel Littrell of Placentia, Ella Grace Peters of San Diego, Ethan Thomas Gomulka of San Bernardino, Daniel Chen of Chino Hills, Haley Jeffers of Camarillo and Thalia Hoang-Vy Nguyen of Bakersfield.
If you want to test your own word power, you can take a sample test from Scripps online. But fair warning: It ain’t easy.