WASHINGTON - Neetu Chandak had trouble catching her breath after learning Thursday that she had made the next round of the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
"My heart's, like, beating," she said, fanning her face with both hands. "I'm not sure if anybody can hear me."
The 14-year-old from Seneca Falls, N.Y., in the green blouse with glittering butterflies, had no reason to worry. She tackled both of her spelling words with ease and became one of 48 spellers to advance to the semifinals.
Also advancing was Neel Mehta, 14, of Audubon, Montgomery County, an eighth grader at Arcola Intermediate School participating in his second straight national bee, though he didn't reach the 2009 semifinals. Two other Pennsylvanians, Joanna Ye, 13, of Carlisle, and Sukanya Roy, 14, a student in Clarks Summit, are also competing in the next round.
The 48 are all who remain from the 273 competitors from across the United States and around the world who came to Washington for this year's bee. The champion, who will win a trophy and more than $40,000 in cash and prizes, will be crowned Friday night in prime time on ABC-TV.
Each of the spellers, ranging in age from 8 to 15, got to spell two words onstage Thursday under the bright lights of the Grand Hyatt ballroom. The results were combined with a written test taken Wednesday to determine the semifinalists.
Neetu, an aspiring architect and interior designer, is perhaps the biggest celebrity among this year's spellers. She has made the nationals for the fourth time - more than anyone else in the field - and tied for eighth in the 2009 bee. She smiled her way through facetious and didn't hesitate through hemerocallis - a day lily.
Another returning finalist, Anamika Veeramani, 14, of North Royalton, Ohio, was just as steady. Anamika, who tied for fifth last year, kept both hands behind her back as she rattled off exacerbate and foggara (an ancient type of water-supply system).
Neetu and Anamika are both hoping to become the third straight Indian American to win the bee, and the eighth in the last 12 years.
The youngest speller - Vanya Shivashankar, 8, of Olathe, Kan. - looked right at home. She was on the same stage a year ago, helping her sister Kavya celebrate victory as the 2009 champion.
Vanya correctly spelled euthanasia and ocelot (a nocturnal wildcat) Thursday but failed to qualify for the semifinals because of her lower score on the written test.