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Indiana boy spells 'guerdon' to win national bee

After watching his sister try three times to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee, Sameer Mishra put himself on a mission.
/ Source: The Associated Press

After watching his sister try three times to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee, Sameer Mishra put himself on a mission.

"I told my mom I was going to do the bee," Sameer said. "And if I was going to do it, I was going to win it one day. And I guess it happened."

Did it ever. With the sister coaching him, Sameer augmented his spelling talent with a sense of humor that often kept the Grand Hyatt Ballroom audience laughing. The 13-year-old from West Lafayette, Ind., was finally all business when he aced "guerdon" — an appropriate word, given that it means "something that one has earned or gained" — to win the 81st bee Friday night.

"I'm not used to people laughing at my jokes — except for my sister," Sameer said.

Appearing in the bee for the fourth time and a top 20 finisher the past two years, Sameer clenched both fists and put his hands to his face after spelling the winning word. He won a tense duel over first-time participant Sidharth Chand, 12, of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., who finally stumbled on "prosopopoeia," a word describing a type of figure of speech.

Sameer was a crowd favorite throughout the tournament. When told one of his words in the semifinals was a dessert, he deadpanned: "That sounds good right now." He rolled his eyes and muttered "wonderful" when told that one of his words had five different language roots. He once asked, "Are you sure there are no alternate pronunciations?" and later uttered, "That's a relief," after initially mishearing the word "numnah" (a type of sheepskin pad).

And what did he have to say while hoisting the heavy trophy? "I'm really, really weak."

Sameer, who won more than $40,000 in cash and prizes, likes playing the violin and the video game "Guitar Hero" and hopes one day to be a neurosurgeon. He tried to watch the movie "Ratatouille" during the long wait before the finals but found he "couldn't really relax that much." His sister, Shruti, cried after her brother's victory on a day in which she received her own big news: She was accepted to Princeton.

"A big day for the family," said Sameer's father, Krishna Mishra, who moved to the United States from central India and teaches microbiology.

Sameer also became the first speller to win the title after misspelling his onstage word in the preliminary round. He flubbed "sudation," yet managed to remain in the competition on the strength of a high score in the written test.

"When I missed that word in the preliminaries, I was really shocked and I was really sad," Sameer said. "I thought my chances were gone."

Third place went to Tia Thomas, 13, of Coarsegold, Calif., who was eliminated on "opificer" (a skilled or artistic worker) when she started the word with an "e" instead of an "o." Tia was one of the favorites, appearing in her fifth and final bee after an eighth-place finish a year ago.

"It was so frustrating. I was like, 'I know all these other words,'" Tia said. "This year has been awesome, but it's real disappointing."

The finals were aired live in prime time on ABC, and it appeared for a while that the broadcast could run late into the night. Twenty-four of the first 25 words were spelled correctly, with the dictionary-familiar competitors breezing through words such as "brankursine," "cryptarithm" and "empyrean" with barely a hitch.

Rose Sloan was so familiar with "alcarraza" (a type of jug) that the 13-year-old from River Forest, Ill., couldn't stop laughing in glee when pronouncer Jacques Bailly uttered it. She was later eliminated on "sheitel" (a wig worn by Jewish women).

It was somewhat surprising who didn't make the finals. There were no Canadians — and no Matthew Evans.

Matthew, also a favorite to win in his fifth and final appearance, was stunningly eliminated during the semifinal round Friday when he misspelled "secernent," a word dealing with secretion and one that somehow eluded him as he studied his personal 30,000-word list. He ended it with "-ant."

The 13-year-old from Albuquerque, N.M., stayed in the comfort room for more than a half-hour, and his eyes were still red when he emerged.

"It's disappointing," said Matthew, choking back tears. "I know a lot of people were rooting for me."

All seven representatives from Canada were vanquished in a span of about 20 minutes in the first semifinal round. No Canadian has ever won the bee, but the country always fields a strong contingent. Nate Gartke of Alberta was last year's runner-up.

"Seven up, seven down," said Pam Penny of Ancaster, Ontario, whose daughter, 10-year-old Veronica, was eliminated on the French-rooted word "etagere." "Very disappointing. Especially for Canadians to go down on French words."

Among the spectators was 94-year-old Frank Neuhauser, the winner of the first national bee in 1925. (The bee wasn't held for three years in the '40s because of World War II.) Asked to spell his winning word from 83 years ago, Neuhauser rattled off the letters to "gladiolus" as if he were racing through his ABCs.

"It's an easy word," said Neuhauser, who attracted a long line of teen and preteen autograph-seekers. "Nobody could miss it, but the second (-place) girl did."

Neuhauser's prize was $500 in $20 gold pieces. He also was feted with a parade through his hometown of Louisville, Ky.

"It was a lot easier back then," Neuhauser told the audience. "There were only eight competitors instead of 288. I'd never make it now."

The 288 spellers that entered this year's bee was a record. Forty-five of them made it past the preliminary and quarterfinal rounds Thursday to compete on Friday.