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Arizona students fall short after strong run at National Spelling Bee

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WASHINGTON – They studied for years. They breezed through their nerve-racking moments on the stage, correctly spelling words in front of a national audience.

But when the scores were tallied up Wednesday, Arizona students Nila Dhinaker of Gilbert and Alessandro Luis Bolus of Second Mesa failed to make the cut as one of 46 semifinalists in the 87th National Spelling Bee.

“For now, I’m just going to chill out and try again next year,” said Nila, a student at Cooley Middle School.

Nila and Alessandro, both 12, were among 281 students who started the Scripps National Spelling Bee on Tuesday. While more than one-fourth of the contestants had previously been to one bee or more, this year’s national competition was the first for both Arizona students.

The bee began Tuesday with a multiple-choice test that asked all the contestants – who ranged in age from 8 to 15 – the same spelling and vocabulary questions. It continued Wednesday with the on-stage spelling that most people recognize as the bee, with students getting different words to spell and being eliminated after a misspelling.

Nila said she felt pretty confident after Tuesday’s round. “It wasn’t as hard as I expected, but I’ve got to be careful with it,” she said Tuesday.

That confidence carried over into Wednesday’s rounds when she correctly spelled “mikado” and “apothecary.”

And Alessandro, who said he was nervous after Tuesday, exuded more confidence on stage as he correctly spelled “belligerent” and “usurper” on Wednesday.

“Those words were pretty easy,” said Alessandro, a student at Second Mesa Day School.

Off-stage, however, he said he was nervous during the competition, but had the support of his family to reassure him.

“My brothers help me study,” Alessandro said. “My dad and my mom help me study too.”

Alessandro has been participating in spelling bees for five years. When not focused on building his vocabulary, Alessandro said he enjoys sports and being president of his school’s student council.

Nila, who just finished seventh grade, started participating in spelling bees when she was in fourth grade. She won district and regional spelling bees, before winning the Arizona Educational Foundation‘s Arizona Spelling Bee competition in March to advance to the nationals.

The foundation, a nonprofit that aims to recognize excellence in public education, has sponsored Arizona’s bee for the past 16 years and sponsored Nila at this year’s national competition.

“The spelling bee is our signature program that focuses on students that are outstanding and high-achieving,” said Bobbie O’Boyle, executive director of the foundation.

O’Boyle said the bee gives students a platform to showcase talents in an area that differs from something like sports, which may be more popular among students.

But Nila, like Alessandro, said she likes sports, too. When she’s not studying for spelling bee competitions, that is.

“I love reading and I love the outdoors,” she said. “I ice skate. I do karate. I love rock climbing. I am in a bunch of other activities, too.”

But this week was all spelling.

While the Arizona students cruised through the spelling rounds, those scores were combined with scores from the multiple-choice segment to select the semifinalists. Alessandro’s and Nila’s were not high enough to put them in with the semifinalists.

The bee competition continues Thursday with semifinals and a championship round. Alessandro and Nila will still be in town, but Alessandro is already looking ahead to next year.

“You will see me here again,” he said, after missing the cut for semifinals. “These kids have been here like three times already. I’ve got the experience now.”