05/29/2012 11:03 EDT | Updated 07/29/2012 05:12 EDT

Three Canadians compete at Scripps spelling bee a year after Torontonian placed 2nd

WASHINGTON - Three Canadian schoolgirls are in the U.S. capital region this week to compete at the world-renowned Scripps National Spelling Bee.

A year after a Canadian took second place at the famous contest, Jennifer Mong of St. John's, N.L., Zhongtian Wang of Windsor, Ont., and Vancouver's Mignon Tsai are among 278 competitors squaring off Wednesday night in the spelling bee's preliminary round in National Harbor, Md.

This year's competition includes schoolkids not just from the U.S. and Canada, but from the Bahamas, China, Ghana, Jamaica, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. They'll take centre stage at the waterfront conference centre to spell out words that would confound most adults.

The 2012 contest also features its youngest-ever speller — six-year-old Lori Anne Madison from Woodbridge, Va. Most spellers at the bee are between the ages of 12 and 14 years old.

The contest began Tuesday as competitors took a computer quiz consisting of 50 words. Scores from half of those spellings are added to onstage spelling scores during Wednesday's preliminary rounds; those total tallies determine who moves on to Thursday's semi-final round.

Canadian Laura Newcombe, now 13, came tantalizingly close to winning the contest last year in a pressure-packed final round. The Torontonian was tripped up by the Greek word "sorites."

Canadians have been a strong presence at the Scripps competition for years, and have had several close calls. Nate Gartke and Finola Hackett of Alberta were previous runners-up.

This year's Canadian competitors qualified because they were in the top three at the Postmedia Canspell National Spelling Bee held earlier this year.

Mong, 12, won the Canadian competition. Tsai was second and Wang placed third.

According to their Scripps biographies, all three girls have active social and athletic lives.

Mong plays violin and piano. She's a member of her school jazz band, belongs to Newfoundland's youth orchestra and wants to be a veterinarian.

Wang, 11, is an avid swimmer and chess player. She hopes to be a doctor or a lawyer some day.

Tsai is 12 and a badminton and volleyball enthusiast. She wants to become a scientist.