WASHINGTON – The National Spelling Bee took a scary turn Thursday when a 13-year-old Colorado boy appeared to faint and collapsed on stage, drawing gasps from an audience packed in for the finals. Akshay Buddiga gathered himself after a few seconds, stood up and, to the amazement of the judges, immediately started spelling his word: "alopecoid."
He got it perfectly, drawing a standing ovation. Akshay went back to his chair, looking uncomfortable, when a Bee employee came to escort him off stage. He received medical help and was expected to return.
As the crowd buzzed, the next speller approached the microphone, and the competition resumed.
Earlier, Akshay, from Colorado Springs, methodically asked for clues — definition, language of origin, part of speech, other pronunciations before he calmly got "gruine." His big brother, Pratyush, won the Scripps National Spelling Bee (search) two years ago.
A total of 46 children were still in the running as the 2004 bee resumed competition Thursday, the finals of the three-day event. But the fifth round proved rocky, as 20 spellers stumbled, cutting the field nearly in half to 26.
Among those eliminated was 10-year-old Samir Patel, who was considered a favorite and had been deemed a force to be reckoned with by last year's winner, Sai Gunturi. Samir, who finished tied for third in 2003, tried to break down "corposant," at one point asking the pronouncers, "Am I on the right track?"
But the fifth-grader from Colleyville, Texas, missed it by two letters.
Nine of the first 15 on stage advanced, acing such words as "xerostomia," "technetium," and "Weimaraner." The stumper words included "belonoid," "Nigerois," and "solipsistic."
The spellers were competing for a top package of $17,000 in cash and other prizes, including $12,000 and an engraved cup from the bee itself.
The field began with 265 spellers, the finalists from at least 9 million children who participated in local bees. With initial live coverage Thursday from ESPN2, the cable sports network, the bee paused during each commercial break to ensure every child got on television.
When spellers heard the dreaded ding of the bell for a misspelling, they were escorted off stage to a comfort room of snacks and sodas — and a dictionary, just in case they wanted to review what went wrong.
The point of the bee is to help children improve their vocabularies, learn spelling concepts and develop correct English usage. But for these kids and their parents, there are other factors at play — soaking in the Washington scene, taking pride in making it to the finals, enduring the increasingly tense contest.
The spellers range in age from nine to 15, and from grades four to eight, with most of them at the older end of that spectrum.