Cool and collected, Kavya Shivashankar wrote out every word on her palm and always ended with a smile. The 13-year-old Kansas girl saved the biggest smile for last, when she rattled off the letters to "Laodicean" to become the nation's spelling champion.
The budding neurosurgeon from Olathe, Kan., outlasted 10 other finalists Thursday night to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee, taking home more than $40,000 in cash and prizes and, of course, the huge champion's trophy.
After spelling the winning word, which means lukewarm or indifferent in religion or politics, Kavya got huge hugs from her father, mother and little sister.
Kavya was making her fourth appearance at the bee, having finishing 10th, eighth and fourth over the last three years. She enjoys playing the violin, bicycling, swimming and learning Indian classical dance, and her role model is Nupur Lala, the 1999 champion featured in the documentary "Spellbound."
Second place went to 12-year-old Tim Ruiter of Centreville, Va., the only non-teenager in the finals. He misspelled "maecenas," which means a cultural benefactor.
Aishwarya Pastapur, 13, from Springfield, Ill., who loved to pump her arm and exclaim "Yes!" after getting a word correct, finished third after flubbing "menhir", a type of monolith.
The 82nd annual bee attracted a record 293 participants, with the champion determined on network television in prime time for the fourth consecutive year. There was even a new humorous twist: Organizers turned the sentences read by pronouncer Jacques Bailly into jokes.
"While Lena's geusioleptic cooking wowed her boyfriend, what really melted his heart was that she won the National Spelling Bee," Bailly said while helping explain a word that describes flavorful food.
Then there was this gem, explaining a room in an ancient Greek bath: "It was always a challenge to tell whose toga was whose in the apodyterium."
But the laughter turned to shock when the speller, Sidharth Chand of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., flubbed the word, spelling it "apodeiterium." Sidharth was last year's runner-up and a favorite to take the title this year. He buried his head in his hands for about a minute after he took his seat next to his parents, while the audience and other spellers gave him a rare mid-round standing ovation.
This year's finalists were all 13 years old, except for 12-year-old Tim. Otherwise, they were a diverse group, with hometowns from New York to California. One was born in Malaysia. Another can speak Hindi and wore five good-luck charms. Tim is a science fiction buff who apparently does a great impersonation of Gollum from "Lord of the Rings."
Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, kicked off the championship rounds by telling of a bout with nerves that caused her to drop out of a sixth-grade spelling contest.
"I know that confidence is the most important thing you can give a child," she told the audience.
The only speller to hear the telltale bell in the first championship round was Tussah Heera of Las Vegas, who left out an "r" in the surgical term "herniorrhaphy." She took a seat in her mother's lap and wiped a tear or two as the competition continued.
Neetu Chandak of Seneca Falls, N.Y., spelled the economic term "ophelimity" as if she were asking a question, then exclaimed "Yes!" and raised her arms when told she had spelled the word correctly.
Then the words started getting harder. The next round claimed three spellers, including Neetu, who finished her attempt at "derriengue" by smiling and saying "ding" because she knew she was going to hear the bell.
Kennyi Aouad of Terre Haute, Ind., added a novel flair to the bee, demonstrating the kind of confident showmanship one would expect from a professional athlete. The nearsighted boy would think aloud, scratch his chin and sometimes put on glasses so he could see the pronouncer's lips. After spelling a word correctly, he would strut to his seat, point to supporters and mug for the camera.
Kennyi was finally eliminated on the "palatschinken," an unusual type of pancake. He shrugged and said "tried my best" after he heard the bell, then shook his head bemusedly when told the correct spelling.
Brutal semifinal rounds
The day began with 41 semifinalists. Five were eliminated in one round, then 20 were wiped out in a round so brutal that officials were getting concerned there wouldn't be enough finalists left for the prime-time special. The round claimed a pair of four-time participants thought to be in the running to win the title: Josephine Kao of Carmichael, Calif., who was stumped by "gastaldo" (a representative of a king), and Keiko Bridwell of Duncan, S.C., who couldn't figure out "thylacine" (a rare dog-like marsupial).
"That was a painful run," said Carolyn Andrews, who was in charge of selecting the words.
For a long time, the loneliest person in the room had to be 13-year-old Ramya Auroprem of San Jose, Calif., who was surrounded by empty chairs as the spellers around her exited the stage in disappointment. She was finally joined in the next semifinal round by 13-year-old Serena Laine-Lobsinger of West Palm Beach, Fla., who put her hand over her mouth in disbelief when she spelled "hircocervus" (a legendary half-goat, half-stag).
"I was just shocked to get to the semifinals," Serena said. "I really it is a pleasant surprise when I get a word right."
‘I was getting real dizzy’
How nerve-racking was the round? Thirteen-year-old Neetu Chandak of Seneca Falls, N.Y., started spelling "perciatelli," a type of pasta, when she suddenly stopped.
"I'd like to start again," she said. "What was the word?"
Nevertheless, she spelled it correctly, letting out a big "yes" as she pumped her arms.
"I was getting real dizzy," said Neetu, the speller who wears all the good-luck charms. "I didn't want to mess up when I'm getting real close to the finals."
Ramya, Serena and Neetu all advanced to the finals, as did two returning favorites. Kavya, who finished in the top 10 each of the last three years, nailed "ergasia," "kurta" and "escritoire." Last year's runner-up, Sidharth Chand of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., was his usual all-business self in his white shirt, blue sweater and tie as he spelled "sobornost," "machtpolitik" and "unakite."