National Spelling Bee contestants take the stage

Lori Anne Madison, 6, is the youngest person to qualify for the National Spelling Bee. (Photo: Mark Bowen).

(AP/ABC7) - Fifty spellers have advanced to the semifinals of the National Spelling Bee, including the sister of the 2009 winner and two of last year's finalists.

The preliminary rounds of the National Spelling Bee began Wednesday, with more than a dozen students from the D.C. metro area, including 6-year-old Lori Anne Madison.

After surviving local and regional spelling bees and a 50-word computer test, more than 250 elementary- and middle-schoolers took the stage at the National Spelling Bee.

Clearly the biggest star of the 2012 National Spelling Bee was the smallest and youngest to ever compete in this contest, Lori Ann.

With poise well beyond her years, Lori Ann sailed through the morning session.

Madison correctly spelled "dirigible" during her first trip to the microphone.

Madison misspelled one of her two words during the preliminary rounds - "ingluvies," which she started with an "e'' - and her score on Tuesday's computer test wasn't enough to make up the difference.

"It was close," said spelling bee director Paige Kimball.

Vanya Shivashankar, a 10-year-old fifth-grader from Olanthe, Kansas, was the only competitor to earn a perfect score in the preliminary rounds. Those included two words spelled onstage and a 50-word computer test.

Shivashankar's older sister, Kavya, won the 2009 Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Last year, five spellers got perfect scores, and semifinalists could only afford to miss two words. This year's test was much more difficult,{ } so 17 out of 25 was enough to advance.

Speller Hometown Word Olivia Simmons Crofton mesmerize Sharheer Ali Iman Catonsville capricious Reid Fitzhugh Rockville ocarina Jack Nolan Columbia dichotomy Grace Li Hagerstown rambla Hannah Thomas Beltsville charlatan Michelle Beaulieu Lexington Park dossier Christian Thomas Owings zucchini Sydney Christley Waldorf irascible Andrew Marino Warrenton asthmogenic Jae Canetti Fairfax riant Lori Anne Madison Woodbridge dirigible

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Two of last year's finalists also advanced - Nabeel Rahman of Buffalo, N.Y., and two-time finalist Arvind Mahankali of Bayside Hills, N.Y.

While 6-year-old Madison was the talk of the spelling bee, Wednesday belonged to the veterans. Five-time National Spelling Bee participant Nicholas Rushlow was the picture of cool as he strutted to the microphone and greeted pronouncer Jacques Bailly.

Rushlow, a year-round competitive swimmer who reads "Get Fuzzy" comic books to relax before spelling, made the semifinals for a fourth time.

"I don't know what I'm going to do after this bee," he said. "I'll have to find a new hobby."

Rahul Malayappan of Danbury, Conn., the other fifth-time participant, also made the semifinals. Emily Keaton of Pikeville, Ky., made them for the third time in four appearances.

"It's still a big deal," she said. "Everyone wants to do better than you've done before."

Three foreign competitors made the semifinals: Mignon Tsai of Vancouver, Jennifer Mong of St. John's, Newfoundland, and the unfailingly polite Gifton Wright of Spanish Town, Jamaica, who said "Thank you, sir" every time Bailly gave him a definition or word origin.

This week, Scripps announced tentative plans for a world spelling bee with teams of spellers from dozens of countries. Once that gets off the ground, the National Spelling Bee would be closed to international participants.

Most spellers have a routine, asking for the definition and country of origin even if they know the word immediately. Many pretend to write the words on their hands or arms. But some are confident enough to wing it.

Wearing a black hoodie, T-shirt and blue jeans, Dylan Bird, 13, of Pebble Beach, Calif., greeted Bailly with "'Sup?" before spelling "catalineta." Earlier, he spelled "corpuscle." Neither time did he ask for so much as a definition.

"I never really felt the need," said Bird, a second-time participant. "With experience, you kind of are able to relax a bit more."

His nonchalance apparently didn't work as well on the computer test. Bird didn't make the semifinals.

Neither did Jack Pasche, 13, of Sutton Bay, Mich., whose attempt to spell "idiosyncratically" was, well, idiosyncratic.

"I-O-Q-R-S-Z-quatro," he said, before laughter drowned him out.

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The winner of the 85th Scripps National Spelling Bee gets $30,000 in cash, a trophy, a $2,500 savings bond, a $5,000 scholarship, $2,600 in reference works from the Encyclopedia Britannica and an online language course.

ABC7's Jummy Olabanji contributed to this report.