Pa. girl survives 5-speller standoff to win bee
OXON HILL, Md. – It's what makes the spelling bee such gripping drama. Five competitors were left, and it appeared none of them would ever miss again.
They correctly rolled off 21 words in a row. Hard ones, like "abhinaya" and "capoeira" and "cheongsam" and "opodeldoc." One of the spellers kept checking another one's watch. It was past bedtime, and long past the time slot that had been allotted by ESPN.
"I was, like, what if they could declare five-way, co-champions?" said Joanna Ye. "I just didn't want to be the first one to break the streak."
"I thought," said Arvind Mahankali, "the five spellers were going to be staying on stage for an eternity."
It turned out that not all five had memorized the entire dictionary. Eventually, four heard the telltale bell of elimination, leaving 14-year-old eighth grader Sukanya Roy of South Abington Township, Pa., to take home the trophy and the more than $40,000 in cash and prizes Thursday at the 84th Scripps National Spelling Bee.
"I'm just kind of in shock," Sukanya said. "They were very hard words, but all the words I got, I just knew."
Sukanya's winning word was "cymotrichous," which relates to wavy hair. This was her last chance to participate after tying for 12th in 2009 and 20th last year.
"I went through the dictionary once or twice," Sukanya said, "and I guess some of the words really stuck."
Sukanya likes hiking, rock climbing and ice skating, wants to travel and perhaps pursue a career in international relations. She is the fourth consecutive Indian-American to win the bee and the ninth in the last 13 years, a run that began when Nupur Lala captured the crown in 1999 and was later featured in the documentary "Spellbound."
"They look up to that. But I don't know how that impacted her," said Sukanya's father, Abhijit Roy. "This is not something we pressurized her to do. She wanted to do this by herself, and we basically just helped her along. It's a few years; this didn't happened overnight."
Laura Newcombe of Toronto was the runner-up. The 12-year-old was trying to become the first Canadian to win the bee, but she went out on the word "sorites." Canadians have been a strong presence at the competition for many years and have had several close calls, with Nate Gartke of Alberta also finishing second in 2007.
"I was proud, happy and felt this was a privilege" to represent Canada, she said.
The week began with 275 spellers. A written test Tuesday and two oral rounds Wednesday reduced the field for the semifinals, and 13 spellers survived to the finals in the ever-growing chic-to-be-geek event that was broadcast in prime time for the sixth consecutive year. It took place at a convention center south of Washington, the first time it's been held outside the nation's capital.
The rounds got tougher, but it came down to a final five that wouldn't give up: Sukanya, Laura, Dakota Jones of Las Vegas, Arvind of New York and Joanna of Carlisle, Pa.
When Dakota finally misspelled "zanja" to end the remarkable run, he received a standing ovation. The remaining spellers got eight in a row before Arvind missed on "Jugendstil," which he initially and hilariously pronounced "You could steal." He also got a standing ovation and gave the crowd a salute. Everyone stood again for Joanna when she missed "galoubet."
The only two left were Sukanya and Laura. "Tired yet?" Laura asked the judges at one point.
But Sukanya couldn't be beat. She said she never had to guess at any of the words given to her.
As for her parting advice for other spellers? It has nothing to do with studying.
"You should just enjoy yourself," she said, "and try your best, and if you get out don't feel like you messed up really big, because you just getting to the nationals is a really great accomplishment in itself."
Joseph White can be reached at http://twitter.com/JGWhiteAP