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John Adams speller out by 1 point

John Adams Middle School seventh grader Varun Kukkillaya, 13, was eliminated in the preliminary round of the Scripps National Spelling Bee Wednesday despite correctly spelling “bobbejaan” and “cantatrice.”

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Despite correctly spelling “bobbejaan” and “cantatrice,” Varun Kukkillaya from John Adams Middle School came one point short of advancing to the semifinal round of the 87th Scripps National Spelling Bee.

While he effortlessly spelled with the nation’s best spellers Wednesday, it was Tuesday’s preliminary vocabulary test that sunk his hopes of advancing to the semifinal round. His vocabulary test score combined with his spelling round score was 27 out of 36 total points. The cutoff to advance to semifinals was 28.

Scoring six out of 12 on the vocabulary section, Varun now knows what to prepare for next year: vocabulary.

Despite falling short, the 13-year-old seventh grader has high hopes because he has one more year of eligibility.

While many spellers walked away with their heads hung in disappointment for not advancing, Varun wore a smile as he left the Maryland Ballroom at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center — the location of the bee.

“I feel relieved it’s finally over,” he said. “I mean, I was actually really disappointed because I thought I did better on the vocab section, but I still have one more year.”

For Varun, the actual spelling wasn’t difficult, it was the waiting that was the hardest part.

In two different sections, the 281 spellers took turns spelling their words, alphabetically by state. Varun was speller 272 and had to wait nearly two hours.

“The majority of the time, I was extremely bored because I couldn’t do anything else but just sit there,” he said. “But right before it was my line’s turn, I was on the edge of my seat going through every single word in my head to make sure I wouldn’t miss it.

“It worked out for me.”

Varun’s parents, Radha and Sandhya, were both pleased with the outcome and believe he can make it further next year if he puts in the effort.

“It was an amazing experience for it being his first time,” Radha Kukkillaya said. “We are very proud of him.”

Varun won the Gazette-Mail Regional Spelling Bee in March by correctly spelling “abysmal.”

In what has been a year of endless spelling, Varun hopes to take a break this summer, even though he will attend an invitation-only math and science camp at West Virginia University in June.

When asked what he would do now at the bee is over for him, Varun said he would probably go to the pool. He also said he will attend Thursday’s semifinal and final rounds.

That same good-natured sportsmanship was on display Wednesday during the course of the two spelling rounds. Spellers clapped for other spellers when they got a word right and offered a high-five when they came back to their seats.

In all, 235 spellers were eliminated Wednesday, even if they spelled both of their words right.

Pronouncer Jacques Bailly, an associate professor at the University of Vermont and the 1980 Scripps Spelling Bee champion, said not everyone can win, but that all go home with “winnings.”

“All these kids go home with something,” he said. “Their winnings are all this knowledge.

“These kids are absorbing the whole range of the human experience via these words.”

When asked for the definition or language of origin, Bailly would give a knowlegable response straight out of the dictionary.

But everything wasn’t serious. Most of Bailly’s example sentences had a comedic tone, which had spellers asking for their word to be used in a sentence even if they didn’t need the extra help.

There were three other spellers from West Virginia, though none advanced to semifinals.

There is one more day left in the competition.

The 46 semifinalists took a second test Wednesday evening, which will be combined with their score from the spelling round to determine who will go to finals. Only 12 can advance to the championship round.

Tomorrow’s champion will receive an engraved trophy and $30,000 from Scripps, a $2,500 U.S. savings bond and complete reference library from Merriam-Webster and a reference collection from Encyclopedia Britannica.

Championship finalists will receive a medal from Scripps and a cash prize ranging from $1,500 to $12,500, depending on where they place.

All semifinalists will receive a medal from Scripps and a $500 gift card.

All other spellers will go home with an unabridged Webster’s dictionary, a U.S. Mint proof set, educational tools from Microsoft and a one-year membership to Britannica Online Premium.

All Thursday events will air on ESPN and ESPN2. A complete schedule can be found at

Varun’s appearance in the national bee is sponsored by the Gazette-Mail, the West Virginia Automobile and Truck Dealers Association and Alpha Natural Resources.

In addition to an all-expense-paid trip to the nation’s capital, he won a $2,500 college savings account from state treasurer John Perdue’s SMART529 program, courtesy of The Hartford.

For live, up-to-date coverage of the bee and Varun’s progress, follow @wvschools on Twitter.

Contact writer Samuel Speciale at

or 304-348-4886.

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