Published November 20, 2015
WASHINGTON -- No theatrical flourishes for Anamika Veeramani. She kept her hands behind her back and rattled off the letters of every word she was given -- until she was crowned the spelling bee champion.
The 14-year-old girl from North Royalton, Ohio, won the 83rd Scripps National Spelling Bee on Friday, acing the word medical word "stromuhr" to claim the winner's trophy and more than $40,000 in cash and prizes.
Anamika became the third consecutive Indian-American bee 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."
Anamika was one of the favorites among the 273 spellers who began the three-day competition, having finished tied for fifth last year. She stood deadpan while the audience cheered, not cracking a smile until the trophy was presented.
There was a three-way tie for second. 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 wait for a nerve-racking 3 1/2-minute commercial before spelling the championship word.
The finals were preceded by 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.
"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 Shaquille 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.