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News spelling champ reaches national Bee semifinals

For Nabeel Rahman of East Amherst, the first day of this year's Scripps National Spelling Bee must have felt a lot like deja vu, even if he didn't have to spell deja vu.

Nabeel, a 14-year-old eighth-grader at Casey Middle School, Wednesday breezed through two tough words on stage while scoring well enough on a written spelling test to move on to today's semifinals -- just like last year.

A year after finishing tied for 10th nationwide, Nabeel is now primed to compete again for a national championship.

"After I got back from nationals last year, everyone was very supportive, and it really motivated me to try harder," said Nabeel, the son of Drs. Sadiqur Rahman and Rashida Khanam. "So during the round one test and today, I just gave it my best shot," he added. "I think that helped me to move on."

It wasn't as easy as Nabeel made it look. Bee officials said they toughened up the written exam that helped winnow the field of 277 spellers to 50 semifinalists. And Nabeel said he noticed: Of the 25 words on the test, he actually got two wrong. Spellers had to get a minimum of 23 words right to move on to the semifinals, and only one speller got a perfect score.

In comparison, "coloratura" -- the florid frills that sopranos sing in many operas and the first word Nabeel spelled onstage -- sounded pretty sweet. Nabeel said he had no problem at all with that word.

Then Nabeel was asked to spell "tamarind," the pod of a tropical tree that's used in Asian dishes, and Nabeel felt a bit challenged, sort of.

"Oh yeah, I asked for like the definition and for him to repeat the word, and that helped me get a better idea of it," Nabeel said a couple hours after he spelled the word correctly.

The Buffalo News spelling champ for three years running, he's been studying spelling since the first grade -- and studying every day since his appearance at last year's Bee.

"I wanted to try hard, since it was my last year, so I wanted to make everyone at Buffalo proud," said Nabeel, noting that, at age 14, this will be the last year that he's eligible to participate in the Bee.

Given that repeat performers often do the best at the Bee and that he finished so well last year, Nabeel is likely to be a strong candidate to become the first-ever spelling bee champion from Buffalo. The semifinals will be televised live on ESPN2 this morning starting at 10 a.m., and the finals will be live on ESPN starting at 8 p.m.

"It's pretty exciting," Nabeel said of his return visit to the semifinals. "I'm looking forward to it. I'm a little bit nervous, but I guess more excited than nervous."