GOOD NEWS: Aspiring Neurosurgeon From Kansas Is Nation’s Top Speller

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Kavya, with parents Mirle & Sandy cheering behind her

 

 

It’s safe to say the best is yet to come for the new national spelling champion. She’s only just become a teenager. She’ll probably keep her competitive juices flowing by entering the International Brain Bee, the perfect contest for an aspiring neurosurgeon.

“But I don’t think anything can replace spelling,” Kavya Shivashankar said. “Spelling has been such a big part of my life.”

On her fourth and final try, the Kansas girl who flashed a sweet smile with every word won the Scripps National Spelling Bee on Thursday night, outlasting 10 other finalists to take home more than $40,000 in cash and prizes and, of course, the huge champion’s trophy.

“The competitiveness is in her, but she doesn’t show that,” said her father, Mirle Shivashankar. “She still has that smile. That’s her quality.”

Kavya became the seventh Indian-American in 11 years to claim the title, including back-to-back winners who want to be neurosurgeons. Her role model is the one who started the run: 1999 winner Nupur Lala, who was featured in the documentary “Spellbound” and is now a research assistant in the brain and cognitive sciences lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Kavya, from Olathe, Kan., was an obvious favorite, having finished 10th, eighth and fourth in her three previous appearances. Her winning word was the proper adjective “Laodicean,” which means lukewarm or indifferent in religion or politics. As with all her words, Kavya wrote the letters in the palm of her hand with her finger as she called them out.

“This is the moment we’ve been waiting for; it’s a dream come true,” Mirle Shivashankar said. “We haven’t skipped meals, we haven’t lost sleep, but we’ve skipped a lot of social time.”

One way the family plans to make up for it will be a belated celebration of Kavya’s birthday. She was too busy preparing for the bee to make a fuss over turning 13 last week.

Second place went to the only finalist yet to become a teenager. Twelve-year-old Tim Ruiter of Centreville, Va., matched Kavya word-for-word until he misspelled “Maecenas,” which means a cultural benefactor.

“I had absolutely no clue about that word,” Tim said. “I was just racking my brain for anything possible that could help me. I’ll probably be spelling it in my sleep tonight.”

Aishwarya Pastapur, 13, from Springfield, Ill., finished third after misspelling “menhir,” a type of monolith.

The 82nd annual bee attracted a record 293 participants, with the champion determined on network television in prime time for the fourth consecutive year. This year there was a new humorous twist: Organizers turned the sentences read by pronouncer Jacques Bailly into jokes.

“While Lena’s geusioleptic cooking wowed her boyfriend, what really melted his heart was that she won theNational Spelling Bee,” Bailly said while helping explain a word that describes flavorful food.

Then there was this gem, explaining a room in an ancient Greek bath: “It was always a challenge to tell whose toga was whose in the apodyterium.”

But the laughter turned to shock when the speller, Sidharth Chand of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., flubbed the word, spelling it “apodeiterium.” Sidharth was last year’s runner-up and a favorite to take the title this year. He buried his head in his hands for about a minute after he took his seat next to his parents, while the audience and other spellers gave him a rare mid-round standing ovation.

Among the spectators was Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, who kicked off the championship rounds by telling of a bout with nerves that caused her to drop out of a sixth-grade spelling contest.

“I know that confidence is the most important thing you can give a child,” she told the audience.

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