Thursday, May 29, 2003

Sai R. Gunturi, 13, wasn’t daunted by the word “pococurante,” which means indifferent or nonchalant, and spelled it correctly to win the 76th annual Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee yesterday before a packed audience in the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Northwest.

“I studied the word,” said Sai, a soft-spoken eighth-grader from Dallas, hoisting his gold-cup trophy after his 15-round victory and beaming while the audience cheered.

Yesterday’s spelling bee was the fourth time out for the teenager. The first appearance he made at the spelling bee he ranked 32nd. His second appearance, Sai finished 16th, and last year he came in seventh.

So he wasn’t nervous when judges asked him to spell “peirastic” in the 13th round or “rhathymic,” in the 14th round. Nor did the last word with an Italian etymology seem to faze the champion.

“I’m pretty happy about winning because this is something that I’ve wanted to do since the second grade,” said Sai, who wants to become a genetic engineer.

Asked what he plans to do with his $12,000 winnings, Sai said, “I’m going to buy a lot of video games.”

The youngster, who attends St. Mark’s School of Texas in Dallas, said he did not obsess about the grueling competition but did devote four to five hours during the weekends to prepare for it. He credited family members for quizzing him on the spelling and definitions of words.

His mother, Lakshmi; father, Sarma; sister, Nivedita; and younger brother, Abhiram, 11, were by his side as the two-day competition ended. The family beamed with pride in Sai’s accomplishment.

“I’m very proud of him. There were a lot of children involved. He knows words, but luck was there,” she said.

Of the 251 contestants, 167 were public school students, 35 were from private schools, 31 were home-schooled and 18 attended parochial schools.

There were nine contestants from Virginia, seven from Maryland and one from the District. Girls had a one-person advantage over boys, with 126 participating.

Sai’s sister, Nivedita, who attends Tufts University said the two buckled down during the past two weeks and studied after school.

“I’m the one who believed in him the most. I knew if he put his mind to it, he could win,” she said.

Sai had some pretty tough competition yesterday.

Evelyn Blacklock, 14, of Tuxedo Park, N.Y., who is home-schooled by her mother, Bonnie, spelled some hard words, too. She was stumped in the 14th round by “gnathonic.”

Evelyn, who was making her second appearance at the spelling bee, said she enjoyed it and progressed further than she expected. Last year, she tied for 59th place. Evelyn said that being home-schooled helped her prepare for the competition.

“My mom is home all day and she can help me, and I can put off schoolwork until the competition is over. I don’t mind studying during the summer months,” Evelyn said.

Speller Trudy McLeary, an eighth-grader from Kingston, Jamaica, provided tough competition for both Sai and Evelyn. Trudy spelled “guichet” and “fusuma”, which is a sliding door used to partition rooms in a Japanese house. But “aplustre” got the teenager, who didn’t believe in being rushed by the pronouncer or the judges.

“I feel great, but I’m really disappointed because I didn’t win,” Trudy said.

She said she is taught in her training classes not to be pressured and to take her time.

“I never rushed into the words,” she said.

The District’s lone contestant, Jodie Singer, 11, was knocked out of competition Wednesday by a silent “S” in the “demesne.” Jodie, a sixth-grader at Ben W. Murch Elementary School in Northwest, was eliminated on the first day after spelling it “demaine,” the original French way.

“I studied my head off and made it,” Jodie said after the first round of the contest. She said she spent months studying a list of 500 words.

“It feels good to get here, but I wish I had gotten farther,” said Jodie, who was not prepared for the word, defined as legal possession of land.

She said she could not remember whether she was nervous when she stepped up to spell her word or was just concentrating on what she remembered from practicing day and night everywhere she went.

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