Her final word was an educated term for an ambush, but 14-year-old Snigdha Nandipati handedly dodged any tricks and traps on Thursday, becoming the 2012 Scripps National Spelling Bee champion, and fifth Indian-American in a row to nab the title.
For a few seconds Snigdha stood quietly, unsure of where to look or what to do, as she waited to hear whether the error bell would ring for her spelling of "guetapens." But when confetti rained down instead of the chime of brass, a smile spread across the teenager's face as she realized her accomplishment.
"I knew it. I'd seen it before, I just wanted to ask everything I could before I started spelling," Snigdha said. "It's a miracle!"
Snigdha beat out 277 other spellers who arrived in the Washington area earlier this week to compete for the national title. The San Diego eighth grader tied for 27th place last year but said a combination of long hours of studying and taking lots of tests led to the wannabe neurosurgeon clinching the championship.
The 90-minute final round capped three days of spelling mania at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center that featured contestants from across the country and around the world.
Snigdha and 14-year-old Stuti Mishra of West Melbourne, Fla., were the two remaining spellers out of nine finalists, and they each spelled words from a list of 25 champion terms.
Stuti correctly spelled "chionablepsia," a fancy word for snow blindness, but was tripped up on "schwarmerei," a German word for excessive enthusiasm. Stuti tied for 19th place last year.
For yet another year, Arvind Mahankali, 12, of Bayside Hills, N.Y., placed third. Despite a joking plea for bonus time on his word "schwannoma," a type of tumor, he failed to spell the word correctly.
The final round of the 85th annual spelling bee came after a grueling semifinal during which 41 spellers were eliminated by words such as phalarope (a type of bird), liederkranz (involves German songs), thysanopterist (an order of insect) and pisaladiere (an open-faced pastry).
The young competitors were tested over two days by both written and oral spelling tests.
On Thursday, proud parents and siblings filled the hotel's ballroom snapping photographs of their spellers, while the semifinalists awaited their names to be called to come to the microphone. Some fidgeted awkwardly while others whispered into the ear of their neighbors or waved to the audience.
The semifinal round began at about 10 a.m., with Kevin Lazenby, 13, of Opeika, Ala., correctly spelling "cephalalgia," which is another word for a headache.
Over the next four hours, the stellar spellers took their turns at center stage to face Dr. Jacques Bailly, the word pronouncer, and the dreaded "error" bell.
Simola Nayak of Atlanta looked frantic when she heard her word "rapparee," the name for an Irish bandit. When the bell tolled, the 13-year-old's face crumpled as she made her way offstage to bury her head in her mother's arms.
Some spellers thanked the judges as they made their way off the stage, and others, like Vaidya Govindarajan of Miami, anticipated the bell.
"No, I didn't think so," the slender 14-year-old said as he learned his spelling of "polynee," a dessert made with cookie dough, was incorrect.
Despite the growing tension as the semifinal rounds progressed, some spellers kept their chins up, joking with the judges.
After Vanya Shivashankar, 10, of Olathe, Kan., found out her word "pejerrey," a type of fish, did not have a language of origin, she laughed, "Well, that helps!"
Jae Canetti, of Reston, the last remaining area speller, fist bumped the air when he correctly spelled "habendum," which is part of a deed. When the 10-year-old was given the word "grundriss," or a type of outline, and asked if he could say it back for the judges, he raised an eyebrow, grinned, and said, "Uh, no."
Bee director and 1981 champion Paige Kimble said the words given this year were "the most challenging we've ever offered."
"These kids are truly some of the best of their generation," Ms. Kimble said. "They are going to go far in life."
Ms. Kimble reminded the audience that the farther they go in life, the more words to be seen and comprehended, a concept echoed by Snigdha, who answered that the one thing she'd want the country to know before attempting the same feat, replied simply, "a lot."
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