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Top Spelling Contestants Give Advice To The Next Generation

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Louisville, L-O-U-I-S-V-I-L-L-E, use in a sentence. The biggest city in Kentucky is Louisville. So the National Spelling Bee wraps up tonight. Kids are going to be competing in the finals, and the drama we are likely to see there, all on national television, was captured in an award-winning documentary called "Spellbound."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SPELLBOUND")

ANGELA ARENIVAR: From the minute I walked in on Sunday to register, I was in total shock at how huge it was, how grand the whole affair would be.

GREENE: The film follows the lives of eight kids who competed 16 years ago and are now adults. We just heard Angela Arenivar from Perryton, Texas. She was 14 years old then, did well in the early rounds, but then she had to spell this...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SPELLBOUND")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Heleoplankton.

ARENIVAR: H-E-L-I-O-P-L-A-N-K-T-O-N.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Heleoplankton is H-E-L-E-O-P-L-A-N-K-T-O-N.

ARENIVAR: I would say that heleoplankton still haunts me to this day, and I haven't seen it anywhere.

GREENE: Arenivar is now 30 years old. She's a Ph.D. student in Spanish linguistics at Texas A&M University. And she says traveling to Washington, D.C., and competing in the spelling bee opened up her world.

ARENIVAR: My parents received a third-grade education in Mexico. And I know that they wanted their children to have a better life. And the spelling bee was the perfect entry point to a better quality of life.

GREENE: Now, another contestant was Tampa's Nupur Lala. She's now a medical student at the University of Arkansas. Lala was the champ in 1999, but the moment she still thinks about all these years later came when she was asked to spell a word she didn't know - poimenics. I don't know it either. It's spelled P-O-I-M-E-N-I-C-S. Nupur Lala says she got it right because she could see the word in her mind.

NUPUR LALA: I don't think I've had that many moments in my life with that level of clarity. I look back on that and think this is a reminder of what I'm capable of when I don't lose my cool.

GREENE: Her advice to the would-be spelling champs competing in tonight's finals is simple - it's about taking it one step at a time and...

LALA: Just spelling the next word.

GREENE: Oh, yeah, just that easy, I'm sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: It's NPR N-E-W-S. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.