For the 293 spelling bee contestants swarming Washington this week there is but one goal: Make it to the Thursday night championship, spell down the best of the best and clutch the Scripps National Spelling Bee champion's trophy.
The event has become a national spectacle, and returning this year are a few fan favorites. Michigan's own Sidharth Chand, 13, who placed second in last year's finals; three-time top 10 finisher Kavya Shivashankar, also 13, of Kansas; and Sriram Hathwar, 9, who returns for the second year as the bee's youngest contestant.
Also familiar to fans and contestants alike is Dr. Jacques Bailly, the bee's official pronouncer since 2003, himself the 1980 bee champion.
And this year's competition is not without its own distinctions. For the first time in bee history, China is represented at the Grand Hyatt with speller No. 46, Kun Jacky Qiao, who won the Shanghai Community Center's war of words in March. Qiao, a Chinese-Canadian, gained entry in the national bee by winning a contest made up of competitors from 16 American international schools across Beijing and Shanghai. The Shanghai Community Center was allowed by Scripps to participate in the Bee through a sponsorship awarded on a case-by-case basis to organizations to English-speaking populations around the world.
Former "word nerds" -- both former champions and champions at heart -- agree: No matter how much you've prepared for that moment in the spotlight, there's a certain X-factor needed to take home the trophy.
"One thing that I always tell kids who want to compete is that there's a huge element of luck in who ends up becoming the champion at the end," said 23-year-old Nupur Lala, who took home the big prize in 1999 and is currently doing neuroimaging research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Perhaps nobody knows the pressure that is felt under the lights of the spelling bee than the true veterans, especially those spellers who were featured in the 2002 documentary film "Spellbound," which captured Lala's journey to champion and changed the face of the bee substantially.
"Spellbound" tracked eight contestants, word-by-word, from their hometowns to the nation's capital. Lala won the crown by correctly spelling logorrhea, which means "excessive wordiness."
Angela Arenivar, also of "Spellbound" fame, competed in the spelling bee in 1998 and 1999 and said she noticed a marked difference at the bee following the film's debut when she returned to Washington for a screening at the 2003 bee.
"It definitely seemed more crazed," Arenivar remembers. "Before ['Spellbound'], there really wasn't much publicity around the bee. I think 'Spellbound' showed that the spelling bee is like any sports event -- there's a high level of competition there, but there's a lot of luck involved."
Akshay Buddiga, a rising sophomore at Duke University who made national headlines when he fainted on stage during the 2004 spelling bee, says it's important to work hard, but pressures of the stage can be immense.
"There's nothing really like it and you can't prepare for that," Buddiga said. "It's nothing like anything you experience in your life. All the attention is on you, all the lights and the cameras and the pressure of being in the moment."