San Diego teenager beat eight finalists to triumph in the National Spelling Bee after studying up to six hours a day
Snigdha Nandipati has won the 88th Scripps National Spelling Bee by correctly spelling the word guetapens.
A French-derived word meaning ambush, snare or trap, guetapens were much in evidence on Thursday night at the national spelling bee championships. Words that felled Nandipati’s worthy competitors included ridotto, an Italian musical term, and schwarmerei, meaning excessive and unbridled attachment.
The 14-year-old from San Diego beat out eight other finalists in the competition, which had captured the imagination and awe of viewers watching – and tweeting – live across the country.
“I knew it; I’d seen it before,” Nandipati said of her winning word. “It’s a miracle.”
Miracles aside, it was not an easy win to come by. Nandipati said she studied 10-12 hours on weekends and six hours on weekdays.
As the winner Nandipati will take home $30,000 in cash, a trophy, a $2,500 savings bond, a $5,000 scholarship, $2,600 in reference works from the Encyclopedia Britannica and an online language course.
She said she would put the money towards college, earning her a second standing ovation for the evening.
Nandipati’s win was the culmination of three gruelling days of competition – and, for some of the contestants, years of training.
On Tuesday the original 278 contestants took a computer spelling test, which was followed on Wednesday by the first round of spelling on stage. Their scores from the two days were combined and tallied, leading to eliminations.
By the end there were nine finalists – the same total number of contestants who competed in the bee’s inaugural year, 1925.
“A huge number of spellers went down in the sixth round,” said a spokeswoman for the event. “It was brutal.”
Among those to make it through to the finals was Nicholas Rushlow, 14, from Pickerington, Ohio, who was competing in his fifth and final national bee – making him the most experienced of the finalists. Rushlow was ultimately eliminated by the word vetiver, a perennial grass of the Poaceae family, native to India – and, as it happens, the name of a pretty cool band from San Francisco.
To prepare for his final round Rushlow had repaired to Potbelly Sandwich Works on a beachfront strip of National Harbour, Maryland, to enjoy a turkey sandwich with friends earlier in the day.
Rushlow has developed several rituals over his years as a top competitor: each time he wears the same yellow polo, striped with black – like a bee – and on the morning of his competitions he always eats a stack of pancakes.
In his pocket was a good luck charm with a picture of his dog, a bichon named, wait for it, Cosmotellurian. It means relating to heaven and earth, said Rushlow, who named the dog himself.
“No one else in my family knows words that are more than three syllables,” he joked. But it was a shorter word that would knock him out of the running, even though he professed no fear of his foes.
“I don’t get intimidated by the other spellers,” said Rushlow. “We’re not against each other. We’re against the dictionary. I get intimidated by the dictionary.”
And intimidation was in plenty evidence over the course of the week: Lena Greenberg, a home-schooled eighth grader from Philadelphia, was a crowd favourite. But she was toppled by the word geistlich – a German word used to mean soulful or with great feeling in music – which she even admitted to knowing in advance.
Still, there were no hard feelings. “She’s so sweet,” Greenberg said of Nandipati after her win. “She really deserves it.”
Not among the finalist was six-year-old Lori Anne Madison, who captured the hearts of thousands and attracted a swarm of media interest as the irrepressibly charming youngest-ever contestant to qualify for the bee. She was stumped by the word dirigible on Wednesday, blocking her from the semifinals.
But she was all smiles at a Thursday morning press conference. “I was really disappointed that I misspelled the word. I knew the word,” she said. “It was just too bad that I misspelled the word.”
Since launching in 1925 there have been 88 national spelling bee champs – there were no bees during the war years of 1943-45 – and of those 41 have been boys, 47 girls.
One of those girls, Kavya Shivashankar, took the 2009 crown with the word laodicean, an adjective meaning lukewarm or indifferent, often in religion. (Sample sentence: your correspondent is a laodicean speller, especially since the advent of spellcheck.)
Shivashankar was in town with her family from Olanthe, Kansas, to watch her 10-year-old sister Vanya compete in her second bee. The word that would prove Vanya’s undoing was pejerrey, a small fish. “Even I couldn’t spell it,” said Kavya. “I’m just so proud of her.”
As a head’s up to Nandipati, Kavya cautioned that winning the bee was “a whirlwind. A lot of media stuff. Exciting and a huge family moment. That summer felt weird because I didn’t have a goal to work toward.”
Three-year repeater Arvind Mahankali, 12, of Bayside Hills, NY, said he was happy to have just made it to the finals. He spelled schwannoma incorrectly in round 10 and walked off stage with head held high when the bell rang.
Last year he came third – he was knocked out by the word jugendstil, which is German for the art nouveau style. Wearing the same burgundy polo and tan khakis that he sports at every competition, Mahanakali holds no grudge against fin de siècle bohemians, though. He now counts it as his favourite word.
“I like it because it is an extremely challenging word and a completely arcane term,” said the 12-year-old.
And that’s the whole point, said Dr Jacques Bailly, the spelling bee’s official word pronouncer of the last nine years. “These kids are encountering so many words here for the first time – foodie words, chemical words, biological terms,” he said.
“Trite as it may seem I think of competing at this level as the cherry on the cake. The cake is studying and learning these words. Education, that’s the real winning.”
In other words, it was all a guetapens.
[Western honey bee in flight, with sharp focus on its head, isolated on white via Shutterstock.com.]