Kavya Shivashankar Wins National Spelling Bee With Word 'Laodicean'

Teen from Olathe, Kansas spelled "Laodicean" to clinch her victory.

May 28, 2009, 6:35 PM

May 28, 2009 -- The fourth time was the charm for spelling bee veteran Kavya Shivashankar, who won the Scripps National Spelling Bee Thursday night in Washington with the correct spelling of "Laodicean," which means lukewarm or indifferent in religion or politics.

Wiping tears from her eyes after winning, Shivashankar was presented the champion's trophy by Rich Boehre, president and CEO of the Scripps Company. The 13-year-old from Olathe, Kansas will be awarded more than $40,000 in cash and prizes.

On "Good Morning America" today, flanked by her parents and 7-year-old sister, Shivashankar said there was no fear as she approached the microphone for her final word.

"I'd studied it before, so I knew it when I got up there," Shivashankar said. And she wasn't the only one. Her father, who doubles as her spelling coach, said he was confident knowing "we'd gone through this word several times."

As for her signature spell style -- tracing the letters of the word on her hand before she delivers the final spelling to the judges -- Shivashankar says there's no controversy there.

"Just helps me visualize the word and make sure everything fits before I spell the word," the aspiring neurosurgeon explained to "GMA"s Chris Cuomo.

The Shivashankar family sported t-shirts that said 'How do you spell champion?" on the front, and 'Shivashankar' on the back.

This was the Indian-American teen's fourth consecutive trip to the prime time finals of the spelling bee. She is the fourth Kansan to win the title of champion.

On the front page of the Kansas City Star this morning, the paper lauded their hometown champ.

"Instead of garnering headlines for evolution flaps, a 13-year-old shows America an awe-inspiring talent in spelling expertise," wrote Miriam Pepper, the paper's editorial page editor.

Shivashankar's spelling bee sponsor was The Olathe News. Despite the struggling financials of the newspaper industry, spelling bee organizers boasted 287 sponsors, the most they've ever had. Sponsors are responsible for the organization of local spelling bees and paying the winner's way to Washington.

Second-place speller Tim Ruiter of Virginia spelled out on "maecenas," meaning a generous patron, especially of literature or art.

The eleven spellers who advanced to the Scripps National Spelling Bee's finals Thursday night all had two things in common: None of them read the dictionary in preparation for the national spotlight and they all wanted to win.

The evening unfolded over nine rounds and 55 words.

Word by word, 10 were eliminated with gentle dings and sympathetic applause, drifting from one side of the stage to the other, blinking back tears and disappointment in a kind of spellbound daze.

In the audience sat Jill Biden, Vice President Joe Biden's wife who opened the championship with an anecdote about her own bee past, telling the gathered group of parents and participants "confidence is the most important thing you can give a child."

Sidarth Chand, 13, the second-place finisher of the 2008 spelling bee, was a favorite in some quarters to win this year's competition, but got eliminated in the finals.

"A spelling bee is a spelling bee," he said matter-of-factly before the competition, "You never know what word you're going to get. You never know how difficult the words are going to be."

The statement would ultimately turn out to be prophetic: During round 8, Chand's bee fate was sealed by "apodyterium," the changing room in a Roman bath complex.

Anamika Veeramani, 13, who was on her maiden voyage to both the bee and the bright lights of the finals, had the calm collectedness of a veteran.

"If you don't know it by now, you won't learn it anyway," she said following the semi-finals. Veeramani was eliminated during round 11 on the word "fackeltanz."

New Spelling Bee Champions Find Inspiration From the Old

This year's winner, Shivashankar, cited Nupur Lala, who took home the big prize in 1999 and was featured in the 2002 documentary film "Spellbound," as her role model.

In an interview with ABCNews.com earlier this week, Lala, now a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said she tells champions to expect "the summer after you win the spelling bee to be a whirlwind and all the memories will start coming back after."

Lala describes winning the bee as "totally overwhelming, especially if it's something you weren't expecting."

She says fellow "word nerds" share a "unique bond over words" that ties them together for life.

Spelling Bee: Famous for Big Personalities

For bee enthusiasts at home holding on to memories of 1997's Rebecca Sealfon, who shouted the spelling of her winning word or 2008 champion Sameer Mishra, who mistook the word "numnah" for "numbnut", the finals were not without their own personalities.

Crowd favorite Kennyi Aouad, 13, known for a comic delivery style and stage presence, famously burst into giggles during his 2007 spelling of "sardoodledom." Aouad spelled out this year during round 11 on "palatschinken."

Three-time finalist Neetu Chandak, dripping in good luck charms, celebrated correct spellings with appropriate flourish on stage until round 8, when she incorrectly spelled "derriengue."

Official word pronouncer, Jacques Bailly, himself a former spelling champ, injected humor into the unlikeliest of places -- usage sentences delivered at the spellers' request.

"Enough of this low-carb madness, bring me the palatschinken," Bailly deadpanned to finalist Aouad during round 1. The word "palatschinken," by the way, refers to a Central European pancake.

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