Maybe it’s the fourth time that’s the charm, perhaps it’s what 13-year-old Arvind Mahankali calls the “German blessing,” or it could just be that the eighth-grader just really knows how to spell. But whatever it was, late Thursday night the teen from Bayside Hills, N.Y., was crowned the 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee champion.
Amid falling confetti and whoops and cheers from the crowd, Arvind lifted the golden trophy above his head, finally cracking a smile after a grueling 2 hours and 30 minutes of spelling.
“I can’t even talk,” the fan favorite uttered after correctly spelling “knaidel.” “This means I’m retiring on a good note.”
Since 2010, when Arvind made his first appearance at the national level bee, the charismatic teenager has captured the affection of spelling fans. This was the last year he was eligible to compete in the bee. The past two years he’s placed third, and historically he’s been tripped up on German-derived words.
So when the judges announced that the final word to clinch the title was a German-derived word for a type of dumpling, both Arvind and the audience groaned good-naturedly. But it was all for nothing, as Arvind confidently spelled out k-n-a-i-d-e-l.
“The German curse turned into a German blessing,” the young man said, confetti caught in his hair, his brown eyes wide behind his glasses.
The final rounds were a full two hours before the championship round, when a special 25-word list was used to cull the three competitors to one final victor.
Among the words doled out to the spellers were “trichocercous,” which means having a spiny tail; “panjandrum,” another name for a pretentious official; and “tournedos,” a word common on restaurant menus which means a small filet of beef
One of the favorites to win, Vanya Shivashankar, was ousted after misspelling “zenaida,” a type of bird. Her sister won in 2009. The 11-year-old from Kansas still has two more years to try for the title.
Vismaya Kharkar was finally stumped by “paryphodrome,” which relates to the veins on a leaf. Throughout the finals she seemed to panic when spelling a word but made it through four rounds before hearing the bell that meant she had made a mistake and was eliminated. She groaned “no,” when she heard the sound but said “thank you” during the audience applause.
Last girl standing Amber Born, 14, of Marblehead, Mass., was buzzed for incorrectly spelling “hallali,” a word for a huntsman’s bugle call. By the time she’d finished spelling it her way, she already knew “that’s not right.”
Finally it was down to Arvind and 13-year-old Tower Lakes, Ill., eighth-grader Pranav Sivakumar, who was eliminated after misspelling “cyanophycean,” which relates to blue-green algae.
Arvind admitted that many of the words in the final round were “extremely hard, especially the one that eliminated [fellow speller] Grace Remmer. That one I didn’t know.”
The final round was the culmination of three days of spelling.
Earlier this week, 281 spellers representing their counties and states headed to Oxon Hill, where their numbers were winnowed down to 42 semifinalists and in turn, a final 11 children heading into a prime-time television event hoping to be the next name engraved on the bee’s gold trophy cup.
Vanya Shivashankar, 11, hoped to be the second Shivashankar to get her name on the trophy. Her older sister was the 2009 winner, and the spunky sixth-grader on Thursday said rather than extra pressure having a champion speller as a sibling makes for live-in motivation.
“It’s just really awesome,” the Olathe, Kan., resident said of making the final round, her brown eyes bright behind her glasses, and a blue silk flower tucked into her headband. “She inspires me, so there’s really no pressure. I just wanted to get here.”
Equally as excited to be standing on the nationally televised stage, 14-year-old Grace Remmer of St. Augustine, Fla., said that having competed in three previous bees certainly didn’t hurt her this time around.
“You know how to do it, and you can improve each year,” said the teen, who placed 22nd last year.
Though quiet and thoughtful onstage, 13-year-old Tower Lakes, Ill., eighth-grader Pranav Sivakumar gave a running commentary about what it was like to sit for two hours on stage.
“I wasn’t absolutely sure, but I thought I knew it,” Pranav said of his two words he spelled correctly, “nucament,” which means shaped like a nut, and “dasyphyllous,” meaning having thick leaves. While he waited his turn Thursday, Pranav said he tried to spell out other competitors’ words in his head.
“Some I was pretty close,” he said, adding that his nerves crept up a few times when he didn’t know one. “I couldn’t be sure until I got my word.”
Round six of the oral competition took down 14 spellers, unseating several multi-year veterans with challenging words like “olecranon,” which is a serious name for the funny bone, “isopiestic,” which relates to equal pressure, and “calotte,” another word for a skull cap.
Eva Kitlen, of Niwot, Colo., approached the microphone for her sixth round of spelling like a convict approaching the gallows. Breathing deeply and clutching her sides, the 14-year-old halfheartedly asked for another word when she was given “cabotinage,” a word for theatricality, and while pronouncer Jacques Bailly wished she would get another word — when she made it to the next round — she failed to spell it correctly.
The semifinals began at 2 p.m. on Thursday, the air hot and humid outside, while inside one of the cavernous ballrooms of the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, the air conditioning was pumping and nerves ran high on the colorful stage.
The first speller was 13-year-old Christopher O’Connor of Tucson, Ariz., and he was also the first eliminated, when he incorrectly spelled “pultaceous,” a word meaning porridge-like food.
Back for her second national bee, San Bernardino, Calif., resident Isabel Cholbi kept up a witty banter with Mr. Bailly, deadpanning “so we meet again.” Though the 11-year-old kept a brave face, she misspelled “ecphonesis,” which means to cry out.
Each speller had a unique way of spelling the word. Some mimed writing it out with a finger on one hand, while others like Anderson, Ind., resident Joseph Kirkpatrick flipped his name tag up to use it as a pretend notepad.
While his style got him to the fifth round of competition, the 14-year-old couldn’t get past “ignimbrite” — he spelled the word related to volcanos as “ignembrite” — and with an “aww,” after the bell, pushed his glasses back up on his nose and walked offstage to join his father.
Mary Skirvin, an eighth-grader from Nashville, Ind., put her hands on her temples and closed her eyes as she sounded out “laureation,” to no avail. As Mr. Bailly correctly spelled the word, meaning a distinct honor, the 13-year-old stared into space above the audience, seeming to watch the invisible letters appear above their heads.
Jonathan Caldwell, 13, of Hendersonville, Tenn., initially seemed uncertain about his word “persiflage,” which is another word for banter. But after jokingly saying, “What else can I ask you?” to the judges, he flipped up his name tag, wrote out the word invisibly and correctly spelled it.
Shayley Martin of Riner, Va., didn’t think she’d made it.
“I thought they made a mistake at first,” the 12-year-old from Southern Virginia said quietly, as she waited with her family before being called to the stage Thursday.
But she was finished near the close of the fifth round by the word “sussultatory,” a word that describes oscillations often in reference to earthquakes.
While Shayley was modest about her semifinal achievement, her mother, Lydeana Martin, nodded her head proudly when asked about her daughter’s super-spelling.
“Most of the world is crazy about sports,” Ms. Martin said. “It’s nice to go to a place where it’s all about language.”