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Spelling bee a drama of consonants, dissonance

A home-schooled Californian beats a popular favorite who challenges elimination and a girl subjected to the dreaded 'ding' twice.

June 01, 2007|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Evan M. O'Dorney, a 13-year-old eighth-grader from Danville, Calif., won the 80th annual Scripps National Spelling Bee on Thursday night, capping a day of furrowed brows, shocked expressions and tears poised to spill from the faces of youngsters not yet old enough to drive.

Evan, making his third consecutive appearance at the national bee, said he knew the final word -- "serrefine," which means "a small forceps for clamping a blood vessel" -- as soon as he heard it.

Although he confessed that he preferred the certainty of mathematics and the creativity of music to the memorization required to become a spelling champion, Evan, who is taught by his mother, Jennifer O'Dorney, through San Ramon's Venture School home study program, allowed that he now likes spelling "maybe a little bit."

As the champion, Evan will receive $30,000 in cash, a $5,000 college scholarship, a $2,500 savings bond, a reference library and a trophy, plus $5,000 in cash and 50 reference works for a school or public library of his choice.

When the day began, 59 contestants remained from the original 286 who started the competition Wednesday.

By lunchtime, as the fifth round ended, the field had been narrowed to 33.

By 2 p.m., the finalists numbered 15 -- six girls and nine boys; two from California and three from Canada; five home-schooled. Most were 13 or 14, but there were three 12-year-olds and one 11-year-old, Kavya Shivashankar of Olathe, Kan., who would have been the youngest champion ever if she'd won. (She was eliminated in the seventh round, misspelling "cilice" as "cilis.")

One of the biggest shocks during the day was the elimination of Samir Patel of Colleyville, Texas, a fifth-year competitor who was a popular favorite to win. "I'm really angry that I got such an easy one wrong," he said on ESPN, which broadcast the afternoon contest live. After misspelling the word "clevis" as "clevice," he said, "I messed up."

The crowd, including the remaining spellers on stage, saluted him with a standing ovation. His family appealed his elimination, questioning the way the judges had pronounced the word, but the appeal was denied.

Claire Zhang of Jupiter, Fla., had a heart-stopping experience as judges misheard her and, at first, gave her spelling of "burelage" the dreaded "ding." Like anxious fans at an NFL playoff game, the 1,100-member audience in the ballroom of the Grand Hyatt Hotel listened in silence as the tape was replayed. The judges ruled that she had spelled the word correctly and reinstated her.

And Andrew Lay of Stanley, N.C., looked stunned, his big blue eyes widening in shock, as he correctly guessed the spelling of "negus."

The contest's sponsors had hoped to narrow the field to 10 or 15 spellers before the live prime-time broadcast on ABC. Last year, the first time the network broadcast the finals, there were only 12 spellers -- and the contest easily fit into the two hours allotted for the show.

But by 1 p.m., when the semifinals were scheduled to finish, 29 competitors remained. So bee officials elected to keep going to see if they could narrow the field even more, and ESPN, which had to shift to the women's NCAA College World Series, transferred coverage of the bee to ESPNews.

As that program shift occurred after three hours of intense concentration, the spellers got a milk-and-cookie break.

The sixth round reduced the field to 15. Claire was still in the running but Andrew was not, tripped up by "ocotillo," in which he substituted an "a" for the second "o." Claire was eliminated in the seventh round after putting a "t" on the end of "urgrund."

After the seventh round, the first of the prime-time broadcast, only one girl remained -- Isabel A. Jacobson, a 14-yearold from Madison, Wis. In fact, the seventh round was so challenging that it eliminated more than half the field, leaving only seven spellers to finish in later rounds.

By the end of the eighth round, two more were gone: Connor W. Spencer, 14, of Platte City, Mo., and Matthew C. Evans of Albuquerque.

But Isabel, wearing her collection of 25 bracelets on her left arm for luck, was still battling a field of boys: Nate Gartke, 13, of Spruce Grove, Canada; Joseph Henares, 14, of Avon, Conn.; Prateek Kohli, 13, of Westbury, N.Y.; and Evan.

She was tripped up in the next round by "cyanophycean" (which she spelled ending in "tion"), and by 9:45 p.m., the contest was down to Evan, who finished 14th last year and 17th the year before, and Nate, in his first appearance at the bee.

Officials brought out the list of 25 championship-round words, and the two boys continued to battle it out, forcing ABC to tell viewers that "Grey's Anatomy" would be shown in its entirety after the new Scripps National Spelling Bee champion had been crowned.

When Nate, who would have been the first champion from Canada, missed "coryza" in the 12th round (he misspelled it as "choryza") the door was open for Evan to spell one more word correctly for the win. He did, easily.


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