Balu Natarajan, a 13-year-old boy from Illinois whose parents arrived here from India 15 years ago, won the 58th annual Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee yesterday -- on his third try.
The key word was "farrago," missed by Kate Lingley, also 13, of Dover-Foxcroft, Maine. Natarajan spelled it right and went on to spell "milieu" right, too, winning the $1,000 prize.
He had spent untold hours poring over the word lists provided for the contest. Earlier this week, when the rest of the 168 entrants were seeing the sights and meeting each other at barbecues, Natarajan stayed in his hotel room looking at words.
"I learned how to guess," he told reporters in the media melee that passed for a press conference moments after his victory. In the past two years, when he finished 45th and 63rd, he just swung wildly at words he didn't know, he said, but this time he took hints from the definitions and origins of words, for which contestants can ask.
Others frequently did the same, stretching the spelldown late into its second afternoon with their requests for information, their anguished two-minute pauses and ceiling-gazing. But Natarajan won notice from the first for his brisk competence and decisiveness. He made it look easy.
An eighth grader from Bolingbrook, he is in all the advanced classes at school, loves algebra and computers, plays basketball and the piano, and wants to be a doctor.
"That's today," added his father, Chanda Natarajan, a data processing consultant and a Brahmin who emigrated from Kerala, India. The family speaks what they call "Tinglish" at home -- a mixture of Tamil and English. Their younger son may enter the contest next year, and if so Balu will coach him.
"So far, spelling is quite important in my life," the young champion said. He tried to spend several hours a day at it, reading and perusing lists. But he had no outside help.
"He reads a lot," said his mother, Janacky Natarajan. "When he gets the time from all his schoolwork."
For all that, the Natarajans appeared to be one of the more relaxed families who haunted the corridors of the Capitol Hilton this week. The intensity of the event has grown far beyond anything ever imagined by the original nine contestants who entered the Louisville Courier-Journal's spelling bee in 1925. Parents hovered over their young champions, drilled them on words between rounds, even hired coaches for them.
The media attention was something else. The record 168 finalists, drawn from almost 9 million students under 16 years old, were sponsored by 165 newspapers, almost all of which seemed to have sent a team to Washington to cover their candidate.
And then there was the TV coverage. Local stations from practically everywhere had crews on the scene, filling a corner of one giant ballroom, roaming the halls for spot interviews. Sponsors breathlessly announced that the winner would be interviewed by one top talk show or another.
Still, when you get right down to it, you really can't spoil a good old-fashioned spelling bee.
One by one, the spellers stood front and center, spelled their words and went back to their seats in silence or got the gong and were escorted offstage. A "crying room" had been set up across the hall where those suddenly eliminated could have a soft drink and regain their composure before meeting their parents, who sometimes aren't much help in such situations.
Some walked off with a grin. Some shook their heads, snapped their fingers, pounded their palms. Some were glum, some were irritated, some were desolate. One boy refused the escort, stomped past the special room and stalked down the corridor in solitary rage. One girl, losing in a late round, fought tears.
From ages 9 to 14 -- amazingly, no 15-year-olds were finalists this year -- from fourth grade to eighth, tall, short, fat, thin, from nonchalant to nervous, they were a good group. Stiffish at first, they gradually became comrades under the pressure. In the last rounds, as contestants were abruptly removed, they waved good luck to their friends still on the stage. There were quick embraces, fumbled handshakes.
The children also learned to respond to the audience, rolling their eyes and whooping in astonishment when they scored with a mad guess. "What!" cried one contestant when presented with "fescue." (She got it right.) And Lori Miller of Savannah, Mo., eliminated in the 10th round when she missed "madras," said, "Well, heck, I made the top eight . . . Who cares?"
A protest delayed the first day's session. The word pronouncer, Alex J. Cameron, an English professor at the University of Dayton, accidentally skipped a word on his list, something he did several times during the process of reeling off more than 700 words. He asked Daphne Gaither, 13, of Washington, to spell "dehisce," but then stopped her and gave her the one he had missed, which turned out to be "chamfer." She misspelled it.
Her mother, Katheryne Gaither, charged that she had been upset by the switch and shouldn't be penalized for Cameron's mistake. But the judges noted that the recurring problem had been handled the same way before. They rejected the protest.
The words, taken from Webster's Third New International Dictionary, ranged from slangy new additions like "grungy" to composites like "shamateurism," from foods and fabrics like "manicotti" and "tulle" to the old standards like "eleemosynary." Here are five consecutive words that contestants got right: "ankh," "orwellian," "genre," "silicon," "butte." Here are five they got wrong: "despicableness," "kvetch," "brouhaha," "galbraithian," "obsequy."
Right now, each of those words burns bright as fire in at least one young mind.