NATIONAL HARBOR, Md — Christal Schermeister's favorite word is spizzerinctum - the will to succeed.
Schermeister, 12, from Pembroke Pines, Fla., and Vaidya Govindajaran, 14, from Miami competed Wednesday against 278 other spellers ages 6 through 15 from around the world in the preliminary rounds at the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Both students advanced to Thursday's semifinals.
Govindarajan, an eighth-grader at Herbert A. Ammons Middle School, correctly spelled botanist and coati. Schermeister, a home-schooled seventh-grader, didn't get to spell spizzerinctum, but she demonstrated its definition by correctly spelling indubitably and kuchen.
"The ballroom looked bigger on TV to me, but it's nearly the same size as the one at my regional bees, so I'm just trying to calm myself with that," Schermeister said between rounds.
Schermeister and Govindarajan are old pros. She signed up for her first bee at age 6 with her home-school group, while he tied for 9th place in the 2010 Scripps National Spelling Bee. Both said they approach every competition the same way.
"I remember that I prepared, it's not going to be anything new. I know what's going to happen," Govindarajan said. "I might not know what word I'm going to get, but I'm sure I'll know what that word is."
Schermeister gives herself a little pep talk before each round.
"I talk to myself and I think, 'OK, everyone else is going to spell a word, too,'" she said. "And this is just like the regional bee: I'm just going to go up there, I'm going to spell my word and I'm going to sit down. It's just one word."
Almost all the spellers asked at least one clarifying question about their words - whether it was the definition, its language of origin or to hear it in a sentence. Even when a speller asks a lot of questions, Schermeister said, it doesn't mean that they don't know the word.
"A mistake that so many people make is they hear the word and they go, 'Oh, I know that word,' and they blurt out the letters and they get it wrong," she said. "So even though we know the word, we still have to think through it."
When they aren't practicing their vocabularies, Govindarajan and Schermeister have myriad hobbies: he takes guitar and piano lessons, plays Wii video games and attends Hindu religion classes. She takes ballet, loves to read and is active in her church.
Both students traveled to the Washington area with their families, whom they rely on for studying as well as moral support.
Although many of the spellers spend their down time going over words in their hotel rooms, there has been some time to socialize with each other. Each participant receives a book with the other competitors' profiles. Some kids went around asking each other to autograph their pages.
"They get me and I get them. It's awesome," Schermeister said.
With Wednesday's preliminaries are out of the way, both students are on their way to a Thursday morning semifinal round, and if they advance, the championship finals in the evening.
When the competition is over, Govindarajan said, he's looking forward to touring the Smithsonian and the National Mall with his family on Friday. His family has hopes that he'll go all the way, but he's humble about it.
"I'm going to try," he said.
As for his favorite word, it's otorhinolaryngology. "It's what an ear, nose and throat doctor does," he explained.
The Scripps National Spelling Bee finals air live Thursday at 8 p.m. EDT on ESPN.
VIDEO: CHRISTAL SCHERMEISTER
VIDEO: VAIDYA GOVINDARAJAN
(The Medill News Service is a Washington program of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.)