In the end, it came down to one word in the sixth round for Vaidya Govindarajan: polynee, the Swedish word for a cookie dough tart filled with meringue and ground almonds.
One round earlier, the word Calo – a language spoken by Portuguese and Spanish Romani Gypsies – took down Christal Schermeister.
Govindarajan, 14, and Schermeister, 12, were eliminated in the semifinals Thursday at the Scripps National Spelling Bee and didn’t appear in the finals broadcast in prime time on ESPN – but Schermeister, of Pembroke Pines, was OK with it.
“In retrospect, I would have rather missed out on a word I’d never heard of before than on a word that I had seen before because that would have been kind of a bummer,” she said.
Not that she wasn’t upset at first. When her father, Mark, heard the “ding” indicating that she’d misspelled the word, he bolted toward the stage to meet her on the couches to which disqualified contestants are led after they leave the microphone.
“They offered me a cookie,” Schermeister said of the Bee assistants who met her there. After a minute sitting with her father, the two left the ballroom to take a walk around the resort.
“When she spells the word, if it’s right, you celebrate,” he said. “If it’s wrong, you have a job to do.”
For Govindarajan of Miami, who turns 15 years old later this year, this was his last year of eligibility in the annual spelling bee so the heartbreak was a little stronger. He placed ninth in the 2010 bee and hoped to better that this year – but he came in 10th, one short of making the finals.
“I wanted to be in the finals pretty badly,” he said. “I knew almost all the words in that round, except for mine and maybe another one. I was just expecting to get a typical word that I’ve seen before and just move on, but that didn’t happen.”
The last few rounds of the semifinals were brutal for everyone. As the dreaded bell sounded more and more often, the pauses grew longer while the spellers asked more clarifying questions, often multiple times.
The sighs of relief became more audible and the exclamations more animated every time a contestant made it to the next round. The remaining spellers fidgeted in their chairs or stared stoically into the crowd as the seats around them emptied.
Noticeably, there were more foreign words, from French to German to – as in Govindarajan’s case – Swedish, a language he said he’s never studied.
“Everybody talks about the ‘killer round,’ Shermeister said, a term she learned in a book written by a former Spelling Bee champion. “It’s always the second round (of the semifinals). All of the spellers are eliminated.”
But it wasn’t all tortuous. As the bee wore on, spellers became more and more lighthearted at the microphone, greeting the judges with a “howdy” or “sup.” Sumaita Mulk, 13, even offered a “bless you” to the emcee when he announced “quatuor” as her word at the beginning of round five.
With the pressure off, Govindarajan and Schermeister are looking toward the future, both the immediate and distant. Govindarajan plans to tour the nation’s capital with his family Friday before heading back home to Miami and plotting his return to competition.
“I’m going to do more. I can’t stop,” he said, offering Science Olympiad as a possible activity when he starts high school next year.
“You have to compete in life, otherwise you will be on the bottom!” his father, Muthiah, added.
Schermeister and her family are taking advantage of their flexible home schooling schedule to spend another week touring the nation’s capital before heading home and back to work.
“We’re already putting together the strategy for next year,” her father said. “We’re going to get a jump on everybody, including the finalists. While they’re in the finals, we’re going to be studying.”
VIDEO: CHRISTAL SCHERMEISTER
VIDEO: VAIDYA GOVINDARAJAN