"Ichthyolite, am I saying that right?"
Nabeel Rahman, 13, licked his lips. It was his first word in the semi-finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Under the glare of the purple and green neon lights, Nabeel said today he was not thinking about much of anything at that moment.
"Just trying to be focused as possible, not trying to get distracted by the cameras or anything else," he told ABC News. "Just focusing on spelling the word.
Nabeel was right about how to say "ichthyolite." Not only that, but he spelled it correctly.
"C-A-L-A-B-R-A-S-E-L-L-L-A. Calabrasella." This time, Nabeel did not even wait to hear if the spelling was correct. He just knew. And it was. With that, Nabeel was guaranteed a spot in the spelling bee finals.
The semi-finals brought together students from around the United States, Canada and as far away as Kingston, Jamaica. They ranged from skinny-legged pre-teens to boys with a shadow of a mustache.
Dhivya Senthil Murugan, the youngest of the bunch at 10, looked confident in her hot pink T-shirt and rhinestone glasses as she faced the judges for her last word, "kagura."
When the judges in Oxen Hill, Md., announced her success, meaning she would move on to tonight's championship (one of 13 finalists, down from 275) she high-fived Grace Remmer, the next contestant in line, and returned to her seat beaming.
Grace was not so lucky. She misspelled the word, "casquetel," adding an extra "l" and "e" at the end, outing her from the competition. Instead of yelling "fail," like one of the earlier losers, Grace bowed out with grace, thanking the audience and judges.
For some of the spellers, the cutthroat competition is a long-time hobby. Nabeel said he has competed for more than half of his life. His mother, Rashida Rahman, encouraged him to join his first-grade spelling bee because, she said, children in the Buffalo area cannot expect to succeed in competitions unless they start early.
Student after student said they spent hours and hours cramming before the bees.
Finalist Joanna Ye, 14, of Carlisle, Pa., saw the day of the competition as a good time to socialize and make friends because she doesn't see many of them before the bee.
"It's nice to not have to worry about, 'Oh, I'm wasting time talking to people when I could be studying,'" Joanna said.
To alleviate some tension during the show, Joanna high-fived or chatted with the other contestants. "Some of these people I'm probably going to be friends with, like, for the rest of my life, and it's really nice getting to know all the kids because we all have something in common."
As for the point of all the pressure, tears and time put into the bee, "It looks good on my resume," Joanna said. "But it also lets me know that I can be successful at something after working super hard at it, so I think just the knowledge … that I can be really good at something after putting hours and hours of work into it. It's really rewarding."