Halfway through hearing the definition of the word “krypton,” Vanya Shivashankar nodded to herself as if it proved her hunch, and smiled.
She knew she had it.
Pausing briefly to write the word out on her palm with her finger, she looked directly into the spotlight Wednesday and spelled it out for the judges of the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
The judges nodded in approval and she walked offstage, giving high fives to the other spellers and flashing a wide smile at her parents and sister, Kavya, seated in the audience.
It was the Olathe seventh-grader’s fourth time competing in the national championship and it came with high expectations. Kavya, now a freshman studying neuroscience at Columbia University, was the 2009 national champion.
Ultimately, Vanya earned a spot among the semifinalists advancing to Thursday’s competition.
The rows of spellers were visibly divided between tense kids waiting to go onstage and the slumped, relieved spellers who had passed the round.
Vanya, a 12-year-old who attends California Trail Middle School, also breezed through “ephemeral,” which means lasting or existing briefly.
Kush Sharma, a 13-year-old Kansas City seventh-grader from the Frontier School of Innovation, did not hesitate before spelling “lahar,” a mudflow containing volcanic debris. Hands clasped firmly behind his back, he also correctly spelled “vacillant,” defined as hesitating in choice of opinions or courses.
But ultimately, like 177 other spellers who did not make a mistake onstage, he did not advance to the semifinals.
For Kush and a worldwide audience of admirers who had tracked his trek to the finals, it ended a saga. He and Sophia Hoffman, an 11-year-old, battled so long in a regional competition that the judges ran out of words. Kush bested Sophia two weeks later after their spell-off drew wide attention.
Of the 281 contestants at the national bee, 223 remained in the competition after the two rounds of spelling on Wednesday.
That number was trimmed to 46 semifinalists by combining scores on computer vocabulary and spelling tests given earlier in the week.
Thursday’s semifinals will be at 9 a.m. on ESPN2, with the finals at 7 p.m. on ESPN.
Among others who didn’t make the cut Wednesday were Joel C. Miles, 11, of Greenwood, Mo., and Eagle Glen Intermediate School; Peyton Wiewel, 12, of Parkville and Plaza Middle School; Sterling A. Hollond, 13, of Linwood, Kan., and Basehor-Linwood Middle School; and Ethan S. Perrins, 13, of Lawrence and Southwest Middle School.
As the names of the semifinalists were called, most sprinted to the stage to applause from their families and friends wearing “Wanna Bee” T-shirts.
But Vanya walked up unhurriedly to receive her medal. Last year she tied for fifth place. This was a familiar scene.