By Chris Kieffer
TUPELO – Tupelo’s Maria Kaltchenko correctly spelled all four words she faced during on-stage rounds of the 2014 Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C.
However, her participation in the competition ended in the semifinals on Thursday morning when she was not among the 12 spellers chosen for the finals.
“I’m happy because I did not expect to make it that far in my first competition,” said Kaltchenko, 12, a rising eighth-grader at Tupelo Middle School. “I’m relieved and happy because I didn’t want to spell my words wrong once I got to that point.”
The contest began with 281 spellers, and Kaltchenko was among 31 who were still alive after two on-stage semifinal rounds that were aired live on ESPN2 on Thursday morning. She correctly spelled both “pointelle” and “xerophthalmia.”
“I’d seen the first one before, and the language of origin confirmed it,” she said. “The second one was not familiar, but the language of origin helped me figure out what letters went where and which couldn’t be used.”
Finalists were then chosen from the top scorers of two computer-based spelling and vocabulary tests taken on Tuesday and on Thursday morning. No more than 12 spellers could advance to the finals. Ansun Sujoe of Texas and Sriram Hathwar of New York were co-champions.
The words on the computer test were “really hard,” Kaltchenko said.
“They were the kind of words you would encounter in the finals of the national spelling bee,” she said.
Kaltchenko is believed to have gone farther in the national competition than anyone from Northeast Mississippi ever has. She will be eligible to compete again next year and said she will begin practicing again as soon as she is “mentally ready.”
“I definitely learned luck plays a big part in the competition, but luck favors the prepared,” she said. “I’m going to go more into roots and work with the consolidated word list.”
Kaltchenko reached the national competition by winning the Mid-South Spelling Bee in Memphis in March. She has won both the Tupelo Public School District and Lee County Spelling Bees the last two years to qualify for the Mid-South event. She is believed to be the first Tupelo student to qualify for the National Spelling Bee in at least 43 years, said Derwood Tutor, director of the Hancock Leadership Center, which hosts both local competitions.
Next year will be the final year Kaltchenko is eligible to compete in the event, which is open to students who have not completed eighth grade.
She was among 46 students to advance to Thursday’s semifinals based on her results from Tuesday’s computer test and her correctly spelling both on-stage words during Wednesday’s preliminary competition.
“I thought I would be more nervous than I was,” she said. “There are a lot of cameras and a lot of people there, but after about 30 minutes, I relaxed a little. It was very different than a normal spelling bee, but you get used to it.”
This was her first trip to the nation’s capital, and she is looking forward to sight-seeing the next few days.
“All of the nerves are gone, and the pressure is off, so we can relax the next few days,” she said.