Utahn Michael Barrus Jr. survived the first round of the National Spelling Bee Wednesday by spelling - without a second's hesitation - "valetudinarian."
"It was a word I studied. The first-round questions come from lists they gave us to study," he said. "I was nervous waiting to see if they would give me a word I knew. They did."But Barrus, 14, winner of the Deseret News Spelling Bee, and an eighth-grader at Mountain Ridge Jr. High School in Highland, Utah County, didn't know what the word meant.
Neither did several newspaper reporters covering the bee. But a quick trip to an unabridged dictionary showed that it meant sick or weakly.
He was among 201 spellers still surviving after the first round. The bee began with 238 regional spelling bee champions aged 10 to 14 from 48 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands and Mexico.
While Barrus had an easy time in the first round, many didn't.
For example, Jason Johnston of Carksburg, W.V., realized he misspelled "acupuncture" as he was midway through it. When a bell sounded showing he missed it, he stomped and said, "I knew it" as he walked off stage.
Others just squeezed through and showed obvious relief. Justin Horn of Lewiston, Idaho, wasn't sure if he spelled "burelage" correctly, but when the bell failed to sound he raised his arms in triumph as he walked back to his seat.
Contest pronouncer Alex J. Cameron tried to prepare spellers not to take an eventual miss too hard. "Two hundred and thirty-seven spellers are going to share the experience of missing the last word they get in the bee," he said.
But Cameron said they all are champions. "By the time you have reached this point, you are in something like the top three-hundredths of the top 1 percent of the spellers in the nation."
Many of the competitors Wednesday could have a feeling of deja vu - because, after all, they have been in the National Spelling Bee before.
Eight were appearing for a third time. Thirty-three other contestants are repeaters, having made it to the nationals a year ago.
Also, twelve of the spellers have had a parent, sibling or cousin participate in the bee in previous years.
The spellers are competing for a top prize of $5,000.
Barrus' parents found out earlier in the week just what their son is going through when they participated in the first-ever spelling bee for parents of champions.
A three-member team with Michael Barrus Sr. finished ninth in that competition - surviving five rounds of tough words. A team with Sandra Barrus missed in the second round.
The senior Barrus said that competition may not have helped their son learn much about what they go through watching him. He said he simply smiled and had fun but said, "When we watch him, we are nervous wrecks."
The Barrus family is enjoying the week touring Washington and the surrounding area. "We've been having a great time," Barrus said.