Christopher O'Connor, 13, of Tucson, with his medal for advancing to the semifinal round of the National Spelling Bee. Only 42 of the 282 students who started the competition Wednesday moved on to the semifinals.

Nela Lichtscheidl / Cronkite News Service

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.”

Read more in Thursday’s Arizona Daily Star or StarNet.