This year's Scripps National Spelling Bee drew the largest number of competitors in its history, 516. But the field is far smaller, as only 41 spellers advance to the finals Thursday.
The finalists were announced Wednesday after two days of onstage spelling during which nearly 200 spellers were eliminated for getting words wrong. Scores on a written spelling and vocabulary test determined who advanced to the finals.
"There were no perfect scores on the test," spelling bee Executive Director Paige Kimble says, "We thought it was an easy test. We were wrong.''
"They made it hard on purpose" said Jacob Williamson, a former competitor who is coaching five spellers this year.
But that didn't seem to shake the confidence of those who have traversed the road before.
"It was fine, actually. I didn't expect it to be fine," said Erin Howard, 13, of Huntsville, Alabama. "I think at worst I missed five."
According to Scripps, 113 of the spellers this year had previous national finals experience and 45 have relatives who are former competitors, including Atman Balakrishnan, from Chicago, whose father Balu Natrajan was the winner in 1985, and the first Indian-American to take the title.
The top scorers this year are Shruthika Padhy, Aisha Randhawa and Karthik Nemmani.
Shruthika came into the bee as one of the favorites, having finished in seventh place last year.
The past 13 champions and 18 of the last 22 have been Indian-American.