The 91st Scripps National Spelling Bee at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland
Chip Somodevilla/Getty
May 31, 2018 03:54 PM

A big change at the Scripps National Spelling Bee this week brings to mind some wise words: “If you’re tired and you walk into a roomful of kids, your energy is brought up to their level.”

That is, yes, former first daughter and Today show correspondent Jenna Bush Hager discussing being a former teacher in an interview with Good Housekeeping, but it also applies to the starkest difference between the 2018 Scripps National Spelling Bee and its predecessors. Last year, 291 spellers vied for the $40,000 first-place prize; a new Scripps program called RSVBee upped that number to 516. Applying the Bush metric, there is 77 percent more energy at the Gaylord National Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland, this year than last. If Harry Potter shows up, all bets are off (the majority of spellers cite the books as their favorites).

Though RSVBee places the financial responsibility for spellers on parents or other nontraditional sponsors – on top of getting to National Harbor, and paying for food and lodging, there’s a $750 fee – it does not herald an army of overmatched Veruca Salts shredding golden tickets amid the confetti. Of 855 RSVBee applicants, only 240 made the cut. In 2017, there were 40 finalists; there are 41 today. Sixteen of them entered via RSVBee.

Coverage Thursday today at 10 a.m. on ESPN 2, and continues at 8:30 p.m. on ESPN. Here are a few things to follow and watch for during this year’s competition:

Twitter shout-outs.
The runaway leader in this category is Dina Miranda, a seventh grader from Long Beach, California, who would most like to meet Lin-Manuel Miranda, “to prove that she knows every word to Hamilton” — a claim affirmed by both her English teacher and her mother. After the @ScrippsBee account tweeted Dina’s wish, she thought it was a joke when her mother showed her the iconic creator’s reply: “Let Dina know I believe her, and I’m rooting for her!” (They are not related.)

Dina also shows that these students aren’t all about spelling. In a performance her English teacher called “silly and wacky,” she stars in this ad created with her peers at school:

Next up for Dina, the first-ever Long Beach representative of Los Angeles County at Scripps, is to attract the support of another of the best of the 213, Snoop Dogg.

Dr. Jacques Bailly, the official pronouncer.
The popularity of the televised finals – this is ESPN’s 25th year to air the bee – has made Bailly the avuncular, bespectacled face of the event. His boy-professor mien, wry delivery, and funny, tension-breaking example sentences – “The critic attributed 50 percent of the singer’s fame to réclame, and the rest to Auto-Tune” – make meeting Bailly some spellers’ favorite part of Scripps.

Dr. Jacques Bailly
Linda Davidson/ The Washington Post/Getty

The cutoff is eighth grade or age 14, but being older isn’t necessarily an advantage.
Two years ago, co-champion Nihar Janga became the youngest Scripps winner at 11 years old; last year’s winner, Ananya Vinay, was 12.

Spellers Nihar Saireddy Janga (left) and Jairam Jagadeesh Hathwar
Alex Wong/Getty

Of the seven finalists from Texas, three competed in the Golden Chick Dallas Regional Spelling Bee.
The most notable feature of the regional was not the golden chick that sat, costumed in feathery yellow, among the spectators. The contest ran out of words. Abhijay Kodali and Naysa Modi, 11 and 12, went 27 rounds before being declared co-champions. One round earlier, Sohum Sukhatankar, a sixth grader, went out. Sohum, who finished 23rd last year, is competing via RSVBee. He turned 12 last week.

Two of the whispered favorites tied for seventh last year.
Twelve-year-old Shruthika Padhy, of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, sent a confident signal in 2017: “Last year I was just trying stuff out,” she said. “Now I know what to do.”

Erin Howard, a 13-year-old seventh-grader from, Huntsville, Ala., lives a life very much like other middle schoolers. She cruises a nature trail on her bike, plays the piano and the trombone, writes music. Also she was recently honored at a ceremony where the president of the Huntsville city council presented the local library with one of Erin’s favorite books, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.

Spelling bee contestant Erin Howard
Katherine Frey/The Washington Post/Getty

As Meg Murry says of her 10-year-old twin brothers in L’Engle’s novel, “I don’t know if they’re really like everybody else, or if they’re able to pretend they are.”

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