Who says Cleveland can't win a championship?
The long-suffering sports city — which can't seem to win a trophy on a court or a field — captured one in a hotel ballroom Friday night when 14-year-old Anamika Veeramani took first prize at the 83rd Scripps National Spelling Bee.
"Go Cavs!" Anamika said, shortly after accepting the winner's trophy, which also comes with more than $40,000 in cash and prizes.
The Cavaliers, of course, lost their bid to win the NBA title this year, which allowed star center Shaquille O'Neal to drop by earlier in the day and film a segment for his reality show. Anamika, who lives in the Cleveland suburb of North Royalton, has never been to a game but is a big fan.
The eighth-grader who attends Incarnate Word Academy also plays golf, likes to dance, wants to go to Harvard and become a cardiovascular surgeon. She has the demeanor to pull it off: She stood deadpan with her hands behind her back after spelling the winning word, the medical term "stromuhr," and didn't crack a smile until the trophy was presented.
"It was too surreal," she said. "It was an amazing experience. I usually have a poker face, so that's what that was."
Anamika, who finished tied for fifth last year, became the third consecutive Indian-American champion, and the eighth the last 12 years. It's a run that began when Nupur Lala won in 1999 and was featured in the documentary "Spellbound."
But she broke a long Ohio drought, becoming the first bee winner from the state since 1964. Her parents have promised her a cell phone for winning "and basically anything I want."
There was a three-way tie for second among the 273 spellers who started the three-day competition Wednesday. Adrian Gunawan, 14, of Arlington Heights, Ill.; Elizabeth Platz, 13, of Shelbina, Mo.; and Shantanu Srivatsa, 13, of West Fargo, N.D., were all eliminated in the same round.
Anamika survived the round by spelling "juvia" — a Brazil nut — and then had to sit through a tense 3½-minute commercial before spelling the championship word.
"It was just really nerve-racking," Anamika said. "The commercial breaks didn't really help."
There was also plenty of drama before the finals, thanks to an unpopular move that had some spellers and the parents claiming the bee was unfair and had kowtowed too much to television.
Concerned that there wouldn't be enough spellers left to fill the two-hour slot on ABC, organizers stopped the semifinals in the middle of a round Friday afternoon -- and declared that the 10 spellers onstage would advance to the prime-time broadcast, including six who didn't have to spell a word in the interrupted round. Essentially, the alphabetical order of the U.S. states helped determine which spellers got to move on the marquee event.
"I would rather have five finalists, than five who didn't deserve it," said Elizabeth, the finalist from Missouri and one of the four spellers who spelled a word correctly before the round was stopped. "I think it was unfair."
Elizabeth's remarks were greeted with applause from parents in the hotel ballroom where the bee is held.
It's one of the pitfalls of the growing popularity of the bee, which has to yield to the constraints of its television partners. There were 19 spellers left at the start of the round, which was too many for prime-time. But when the round turned out to be brutal -- nine of the first 13 misspelled -- ABC was on the verge of having too few.
Organizer defends move
"I don't feel bad at all for giving these children the opportunity," bee director Paige Kimble said. "Do I wish we could give it to 19? Yes, certainly, but that's not practical in a two-hour broadcast window. We know it's unpopular and we don't like to do it, but sometimes you can get into a position where that's exactly what you have to do."
Kimble stressed that the move was within the rules and that the round would pick up where it left off. Only the spellers remaining at the end of the round would officially be declared finalists.
Still, the episode renewed the debate over whether the bee has come too close to selling its soul to television.
"They already have," said 14-year-old two-time bee participant Sonia Schlesinger, who represented Washington, D.C., last year and Japan this year and was eliminated in an earlier round. "It kind of seems like the bee should be more about spelling. We're just here to spell words -- not about TV."
Even O'Neal unintentionally got caught up in the furor — in the name of TV footage.
The NBA star created a buzz when he walked onstage and challenged last year's winner, 14-year-old Kavya Shivashankar, to a spell-off for his "Shaq Vs." reality show. Afterward, O'Neal posed with the 10 remaining spellers who were unofficially being billed as "finalists" — adding more fuel to the debate over whether it was fair for all of them to be there.
"Just because one person lives in California and another person lives in Wisconsin, it doesn't mean the person from California deserves any less attention," Sonia said.
During the actual competition, the event continued to display its newfound funny bone. Only at a spelling bee could one hear sentences like these: "Lauren gently informed her father that the exploding fist bump had fallen out of consuetude" and "The phillumenist had a hard time obtaining fire insurance on his storage unit."
A consuetude is an established custom, while a phillumenist is a matchbook collector.