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Chestnut Hill teen falls short in spelling bee finals

A 14-year-old Philadelphian fell short Thursday night in the Championship Finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

A 14-year-old Philadelphian fell short Thursday night in the Championship Finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

After cruising through the first three preliminary rounds Wednesday, Lena Greenberg of Chestnut Hill was one of nine young spelling experts who survived three rounds of the semifinals Thursday afternoon. She rattled off the spellings of catallactics, contrecoup, and cholecystitis in rounds four through six.

In the finals, Greenberg made it through rounds seven and eight, nailing otosteon and yttriferous, but fell short on her third word, geistlich. She spelled it geistleich.

"My biggest regret is that I knew the word already," Greenberg said afterward. "Otherwise, I feel very happy. It was a brain freeze. . . . I was tired. It was a long day."

Greenberg's demeanor often gave away her nerves; onstage, when she was asked to spell cholecystitis, she held her face in her hands, head down.

"I hoped that I would [make it to the finals], I really did hope, but you know, I was going to be happy just to make it to the semifinals," Greenberg said. "When I got to the last round, I was like, please, please, let me in."

Her wishful thinking paid off. The home-schooled eighth grader was able to spell the word correctly and dash back to her seat. At the end of the semifinals, Greenberg could be seen throwing her arms in the air, giving high-fives to her fellow finals-bound spellers. Only nine of the 50 young people in the semifinals advanced.

Greenberg's excitement was understandable: In addition to a trophy, prizes on the line included $30,000 in cash, a $2,500 savings bond, a $5,000 scholarship, $2,600 of reference works, and an online language course.

A 14-year-old from San Diego, Snigdha Nandipati, won the bee by spelling guetapens, a French-derived word that means "ambush, snare, or trap."

Nandipati is an avid reader and coin collector who aspires to become a psychiatrist or neurosurgeon. She plays violin and is fluent in Telugu. She is the fifth consecutive Indian American winner and 10th in the last 14 years.

"She really deserved to win," Greenberg said. "I think it was all really meant to be."

The event was at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in National Harbor, Md., outside Washington.

Greenberg said she enjoyed the experience and hanging around with her fellow competitors.

"They were all the most lovely people. . . . We had fun, we all had fun with each other. It's the best," Greenberg said. "You see it on TV and you think it's very stiff and competitive kids, but it's all really warm and friendly."

She said she had been doing spelling bees for about three years but had always been a pretty good speller. Her mother, Marisol Villamil, said she had come a long way since she first watched a bee in 2006, at her grandmother's recommendation.

"I go over a lot of lists. I study a lot of root words," Greenberg said. "I come up with stories . . . give letters personalities.

"I fit [practicing] in with school," Greenberg added. "I have to say, it sounds like a cliché, but there were so many words in the semifinals that I didn't know and when I got words that I didn't know that I could figure out, I felt really humble and great."

Greenberg is interested in foreign languages and cultures, politics, and current events. She said she speaks Spanish, too. She said she might consider a career as an author, though she noted she has a long time to think about it.

Villamil said that she teaches her daughter at home, but that she acts as more of a guide. She said she didn't necessarily emphasize spelling in her daughter's education.

"I'm a language and literature person," Villamil said. "I think it's just because she's genetically my daughter, between the two of us there was an emphasis on language and literature."

Despite the loss in the finals, Villamil said, her daughter's success to that point was a victory in itself. "The dominant feeling is that I'm just so happy for her. This is something that she's been wanting for so long. It's almost like a dream," Villamil said.

This was Greenberg's last eligible year for the bee, but she said she'd be watching next year.

And in the future? "Maybe I could come back here and be a judge and help out."