WASHINGTON - Under the glare of bright lights, in a time slot usually reserved for athletes, actors, or dancing celebrities, a 13-year-old from Kansas was crowned the national spelling champ last night.
An intense, oddly compelling spectacle of smart kids, the Scripps National Spelling Bee pitted 293 fourth through eighth graders against one another in a tense three-day competition.
Kavya Shivashankar of Olathe won it all on Laodicean, which means halfhearted in respect to religion or politics.
It was the poised eighth grader's fourth trip to the bee. With her father as a coach, Kavya pored over lists of possible words for months, she said.
"You have to know you want to do it," she said after hoisting the winner's trophy. "You have to put the effort into it."
In the earlier rounds, students plowed through obscure words like omphaloskepsis and Caerphilly (which has nothing to do with parking your car in Center City), hoping to avoid the dreaded "bing" that signaled a botched spelling.
All of the region's spellers - Emily Fletcher of Ambler, Audrey Liu of Mount Laurel, Neel Mehta of Audubon, Pa., Sowsan Salaam of Philadelphia, and Paro Sen of Avondale - were eliminated on Wednesday and failed to make the semifinals, televised live on ESPN and ABC. But yesterday's rounds proved full of thrills, as heavily made-up hosts whispered commentary, TV cameras zeroed in on spellers, and photographers snapped shots of anguished parents.
Veronica Penny, a tiny fifth grader from Ontario, got knocked out in the fifth round. The audience was perfectly quiet as she scrunched up her face and buried it in her hands, her signature puzzling-out-a-word move.
After she botched macle, a twin crystal - Veronica came up with "maquelle" - she appeared stunned as a bee aide ushered her off the stage and the crowd groaned.
Kennyi Aouad, an eighth grader from Terre Haute, Ind., looked incredulously at pronouncer Jacques Bailly when he heard his word, austausch, or exchange. He blinked, removed his glasses from his pocket and put them on, rocking forward slightly.
"OK. I'm ready to spell it," Kennyi said.
He was right. The normally reserved audience broke into raucous applause for a clear crowd favorite.
Later, the poised speller explained his moves.
"I guess I was trying to get the crowd into it," Kennyi said. "I'm also kind of nearsighted."
Neetu Chandak, a seventh grader from Seneca Falls, N.Y., threw her arms in the air when she spelled a word correctly. Nerves, Neetu?
"I had butterflies in my stomach," she confessed. "It was my first time" in the finals, she noted.
The spellers brought good-luck charms and bumblebee necklaces to the ballroom of the Grand Hyatt. One slept with the dictionary under her pillow; another had learned her words while jumping on a trampoline.
Each approached the microphone to spell with his or her own unique style.
Aishwarya Pastapur, an eighth grader from Springfield, Ill., closed her eyes when she spelled.
Serena Laine-Lobsinger, a home-schooled eighth grader from West Palm Beach, Fla., used her finger to puzzle out the words on her hand.
Last year's runner-up, Sidharth Chand, an eighth grader from Bloomfield Hills, Mich., was all business in a vest, crisp white shirt, and tie. He strode to the microphone and tackled Reykjavik without batting an eye.
Did he feel more pressure than last year, going in so heavily favored?
"Maybe, a little, but not that much," Sidharth said. "You never know what word you're going to get."
Later, Sidharth would fumble on apodyterium, or dressing room, earning a standing ovation from the crowd. It was his last year of eligibility for the bee.
The pressure of a prime-time ABC time slot - host Tom Bergeron cracking jokes, moments of high drama broken by commercial breaks, techs dabbing makeup on the faces of spellers and parents - seemed to rattle some of the competitors.
The first speller out of the championship round was Tussah Heera, a home-schooled eighth grader from Las Vegas. She blinked back tears when she misspelled herniorrhaphy, or repair of a hernia. When she reached her mother's side, her face crumbled as the cameras rolled.
The spellers were quite an impressive group. Andrew Traylor, a home-schooled eighth grader from Staunton, Va., is, according to his official bee bio, "quite the advocate for coffee, ramen noodles, and burritos."
Josephine Kao, an eighth grader from Sacramento, Calif., is "a valued member of the Capital Valley Harp Circle."
Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Biden, was clearly wowed.
The former spelling champ of her sixth-grade class, Jill Biden, an English teacher, told the spellers she was proud of them. And maybe a little envious.
On the day she was supposed to go to compete in her next bee, Biden said, "I was so nervous and shy, I told my mom that I was sick, and I've always regretted that."
No jitters for finalist Anamika Veeramani, a seventh grader from North Royalton, Ohio, who sailed through to the final rounds. She didn't even study between the semifinals and finals.
"If you don't know it now, you won't learn it," Veeramani said, nodding sagely.
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