WASHINGTON — Cool and collected, Kavya Shivashankar wrote out every word on her palm and always ended with a smile. The 13-year-old Kansas girl saved the biggest smile for last, when she rattled off the letters to "Laodicean" to become the nation's spelling champion.
The budding neurosurgeon from Olathe, Kan., outlasted 11 finalists Thursday night to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee, taking home more than $40,000 in cash and prizes and, of course, the huge champion's trophy.
"I can't believe it happened," Kavya said. "It feels kind of unreal."
After spelling the winning word, which means lukewarm or indifferent in religion or politics, Kavya got huge hugs from father Mirle, mother Sandy and little sister Vanya.
"The competitiveness is in her," Mirle Shivashankar said. "But she doesn't show that. She still has that smile. That's her quality."
Kavya won in her fourth appearance at the bee, having finished 10th, eighth and fourth over the last three years. She enjoys playing the violin, bicycling, swimming and learning Indian classical dance, and her role model is Nupur Lala, the 1999 champion featured in the documentary "Spellbound."
"This is the moment we've been waiting for; it's a dream come true," Mirle said. "We haven't skipped meals, we haven't lost sleep, but we've skipped a lot of social time."
That would be any kind of celebration for Kavya's birthday. She turned 13 last week but was too busy planning for the bee to have a party.
She'll have more time for such festivities now that she's retiring as a speller, but she'll eventually need another outlet for her competitive nature. Her father said she might enter the "Brain Bee," a science-oriented contest that should suit her career goal well.
"But I don't think anything can replace spelling," Kavya said. "Spelling has been such a big part of my life."
Second place went to 12-year-old Tim Ruiter of Centreville, Va., the only non-teenager in the finals. 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., who loved to pump her arm and exclaim "Yes!" after getting a word correct, finished third after flubbing "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. There was even 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 the National 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.
This year's finalists were all 13 years old, except for 12-year-old Tim. Otherwise, they were a diverse group, with hometowns from New York to California. One was born in Malaysia. Another can speak Hindi and wore five good-luck charms. Tim is a science fiction buff who apparently does a great impersonation of Gollum from "Lord of the Rings."
Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, 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.
Kennyi Aouad of Terre Haute, Ind., added a novel flair to the bee, demonstrating the kind of confident showmanship one would expect from a professional athlete. The nearsighted boy would think aloud, scratch his chin and sometimes put on glasses so he could see the pronouncer's lips. After spelling a word correctly, he would strut to his seat, point to supporters and mug for the camera.
Kennyi was finally eliminated by the word "palatschinken," an unusual type of pancake. He shrugged and said "tried my best" after he heard the bell, then shook his head bemusedly when told the correct spelling.
Associated Press writer Ben Greene contributed to this story.
On the Net:
Scripps National Spelling Bee: http://spellingbee.com/