OXON HILL, Md. – Arvind Mahankali has conquered his nemesis, the German language, to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee on Thursday night, winning at last after third-place finishes in 2011 and 2012.
The 13-year-old from Bayside Hills, N.Y., correctly spelled “knaidel,” a small mass of leavened dough, to win the 86th version of the competition. The bee tested brain power, composure and, for the first time, knowledge of vocabulary.
Arvind will take home $30,000 in cash and prizes along with a huge, cup-shaped trophy.
He finished third in 2011 and 2012, eliminated both times on German-derived words. This year, he got two German words in the finals and nailed them both, including the winning word.
The eleven finalists advanced from a field of 281 contenders based on a combination of a performance onstage and their performance on a computerized spelling and vocabulary test.
Runner-up was 13-year-old Pranav Shivashankar of Olathe, Kan., who stumbled and was eliminated on the word “cyanophycean,” a blue-green alga. Sriram Hathwar, of Painted Post, N.Y., finished third and Amber Born, 14, of Marblehead, Mass., finished fourth.
The finish capped an arduous week of competition that began with curiosity and angst over a new vocabulary test but finished in a familiar way in Thursday’s final, with bright kids spelling difficult words under the bright lights of prime-time TV.
Over the course of more than two hours, the final inched toward a conclusion with 11 finalists being eliminated one by one.
The 11 were the last survivors from a field of 281 contenders who arrived to compete for the title of champion speller of the English language.
Fourteen-year-old Grace Remmer of St. Augustine, Fla., got the final round launched by spelling “greffier,” which means an official recorder or keeper of records. But she later stumbled while attempting to spell “melocoton,” a word meaning a peach grafted on a quince root stalk.
“Thank you, everyone,” she said, leaving the stage to a standing ovation.
Finalists included several spelling bee veterans, but as the night wore on they were down to four contestants after more than two hours of competition.
The win by Arvind continued the recent tradition of Indian-American winners. There have been five in a row and 10 of 14, a run that began in 1999 when Nupur Lala captured the title in 1999 and was later featured in the documentary “Spellbound.”
This was the first year that a computerized vocabulary test helped determine the finalists.
The 11 finalists were culled from 42 semifinalists Thursday afternoon, with spellers advancing based on a formula that combined their scores from a computerized spelling and vocabulary test with their performance in two onstage rounds.
The show-stealer during the semifinals was Born, 14, who has wanted to be a comedy writer ever since she saw the pilot to “Seinfeld.” The bee’s growing popularity is reflected in an ESPN broadcast that gets more sophisticated each year, so Amber got to watch herself featured on a televised promo that also aired on the jumbo screen inside the auditorium.
She then approached the microphone and, referring to herself, deadpanned: “She seemed nice.”
The crowd laughed and applauded. Amber turned serious once she heard her word – “pediculicide” – but she spelled it correctly and did a little hop as she headed back to her seat.
In the next round, Amber asked pronouncer Jacques Bailly: “Please give me something I know.” Given the word “malacophilous” and told it means “adapted to pollination by snails,” she replied: “I don’t know if that’s possible.”
She hid her face with her placard, trying to visualize the word. When she guessed the correct spelling, she leaped all the way back to her seat and advanced to the finals.
Sivakumar, 13, of Tower Lakes, Ill., in his final year of eligibility, greeted Bailly in Latin and was relieved to make it past the semifinals after missing a word in the same round in both 2011 and 2012.
“I don’t think I’m nervous anymore,” Pranav said earlier Thursday. “The semifinals was always the stumbling block for me.”
The buzz at this year’s bee was the introductory of vocabulary for the first time. Some of the spellers liked it, some didn’t, and many were in-between, praising the concept but wondering why it wasn’t announced at the beginning of the school year instead of seven weeks before the national bee.
“It was kind of a different challenge,” said one eliminated finalist Vismaya Kharkar, 14, of Bountiful, Utah. “I’ve been focusing my studying on the spelling for years and years.”
There were two multiple-choice vocabulary tests – one in the preliminaries and one in the semifinals – administered in a quiet room away from the glare of the onstage parts of the bee. The finals looked the same as always: No vocabulary, just spellers trying to avoid the doomsday bell.
The first vocabulary test had some words anyone would know, such as “tranquil,” but the second one included stumpers such as “anacoluthon” (definition: a syntactical inconsistency within a sentence).