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Can you spell ‘tension’? Arizona teens compete in National Spelling Bee

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WASHINGTON – Tucson seventh-grader Christopher O’Connor did not think he would make it past the state competition, much less hear his name called as a semifinalist in the National Spelling Bee.

“It felt surreal,” Christopher, 13, said Wednesday after advancing past the preliminary rounds of the competition in the Washington suburbs.

The St. Cyril of Alexandria Catholic School student was one of two Arizona teens competing in the national bee, along with 14-year-old Samuel Yeager from Chinle Junior High School.

Both were at the nationals for the first time and both advanced through the first two rounds of the competition, but Samuel stumbled in the third when faced with the word “yannigan” – a member of a scrub team in baseball, according to

Samuel, who has competed in bees since he was 9, spelled the word “yannagan” and did not advance. Christopher spelled “rembrandt” correctly to keep competing.

By Wednesday evening, the original 281 contestants had been narrowed down to 42 semifinalists, including Christopher. They will be back Thursday for the chance to move on to the finals and the grand prize of $30,000 and a Scripps National Champion trophy in what organizers bill as “the nation’s largest and longest-running educational program.”

In addition to the familiar rounds of spelling on stage, contestants face a computer-based spelling test and they have to select the correct definition of vocabulary words.

Contestants were given a list of 400 words to study in early rounds, but there is no list going into the semifinals, which will be broadcast by ESPN2. ESPN will carry the finals live.

“This is where it gets real,” said Christopher’s mother, Carol, of the heightened competition. “But we’re happy no matter what.”

Happy because Christopher, who was competing in his first spelling bee this year, did not think he would get this far.

“I was kind of shocked when I found out,” Christopher said of his win at the state level. “I didn’t really think I’d win.”

“I’m speechless,” said his mother. “I am just so proud that he made it this far. He did better than I expected.”

Christopher made just a handful of errors in the first stage of the preliminary round and none in the second and third rounds. Results of all the rounds are added together to give contestants a score: Christopher said his goal was to not finish in last place.

“I don’t want to be overconfident,” he said.

His family thinks he’s too humble.

“He doesn’t like attention,” said Jennifer O’Connor, Christopher’s oldest sister. “He has a lot of potential so I want him to get what he deserves.”

For now, Christopher wants to continue to do well and not let the pressure get to him, especially under all the cameras and lights.

“Everyone (is) watching you,” said Christopher, who added that he “doesn’t like the publicity.”

Ironically, said Paige Kimble, the executive director of the Scripps National Spelling Bee and 1981 national champion, “the kids are more excited about being on TV than the actual prize.”

For his part, Christopher seemed more content than worried. He joked after Wednesday’s grueling first rounds that he planned “to eat and meditate.”

Whatever happens, his family is behind him.

“I know he can do it. He just has to have the confidence,” said Michelle, his other sister. “He’s a big kid.