WASHINGTON — At last.
Kavya Shivashankar, a 13-year-old word wizard from Olathe, Kan., finally captured the Scripps National Spelling Bee championship late Thursday.
After six years of inhaling dictionaries word by word, memorizing their meanings, studying their roots and perfecting their pronunciations, she bested 292 competitors and aced 40 words to capture a prize that's eluded her in three previous final appearances.
"It's been my dream for so long, I just can't believe it's actually happened," Kavya said afterward.
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The eighth-grader from suburban Kansas City maintained a cool confidence throughout all 16 rounds of the competition.
She appeared to know every word as soon as she heard it, asking only a few questions about roots and meanings.
Only one word back in the fourth round, "ergasia," stumped her. It means any form of activity, especially mental.
"But I came up with the root and was able to get the word," she said.
Then came her trademark scribbling of the word with her finger across the palm of her hand to check herself. And then she nailed it.
"She has incredible poise and composure," said Paul Loeffler, a former competitor who serves as ESPN's color analyst for its bee coverage. "Rarely do you see her look nervous or panicked. She has a grace about her that I think all the other competitors recognize and look up to."
Kavya's triumph before a nationally televised audience on ABC and against some stiff competition came down to "Laodicean," an indifference to religion or politics.
Kavya paid tribute to her father and coach, Mirle Shivashankar.
"My dad really helped me," she said. "I couldn't have done this without him."
"Wonderful" is how he described his daughter's achievement. But he had butterflies throughout.
"No matter how many years we come," Kavya's father said, "it's always there."
Kavya, who hopes to become a neurosurgeon, which elicited a loud applause from the audience during a post-bee interview, will take home $30,000 in cash, a $5,000 scholarship, a $2,500 savings bond and an Encyclopedia Britannica reference collection.
Plus a big gold trophy.
The National Spelling Bee has become every bit the tension-racked sporting event.
Spellers ranged in age from 9 to 15. Nearly half were in eighth grade, but one was in third. The girl-boy split was nearly even.
They pumped their fists when successful and sometimes sunk their faces into their hands when they were at sea. They all knew their limits.
"I tried my best," said Kennyi Kwaku Aouad, 13, of Terre Haute, Ind., after missing a particularly troublesome "palatschinken," a jelly pancake.
Thirteen-year-old Neetu Chandak of Seneca Falls, N.Y., took a stab at "derriengue," but quickly added, "Ding," providing her own error bell before the real one rang.
Dealt the tongue-twister, "hydrargyrum," which means the element mercury, Kavya solved it by also asking, "Does it come from the Greek 'hydro,' meaning water?"
Earlier in the day during the semifinals, things got rugged quickly. The 293 had been whittled to 41.
Words such as barbotte. Skeuomorph. Gastaldo. Dansant. Kichel. Eurostomatous. Hyalithe. Macle. Sievert. Crystophene.
Noah Webster might have even throw in the towel.
Only one out of the first 10 spellers in the second semifinal round survived. And things didn't get any easier.
"Nice!" said Serena Sky Laine-Lobsinger, with unmistakable sarcasm when she heard her word, "hercocirvus," which means a legendary half-stag, half-goat creature.
But the 13-year-old speller from West Palm Beach, Fla., managed to gut it out. She did what many of them do: "If you're don't know the word, spell it exactly like it sounds," Loeffler said.
That didn't work out for Brent Henderson, 14, of Blue Springs, Mo. In his second National Spelling Bee, Brent stumbled on "cicatrize," which means to heal by forming a scar.
Kavya, meanwhile, said her only plans right now are to relax.
Still, she said, "I'm going to miss spelling. It's been a big part of my life."
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