Sally Nielson could barely contain her excitement as No. 85 took a crack at his first word.

"Oceanic," the judge intoned.

"O-C-E-A-N-I-C," came the answer from 12-year-old Phuong Pham.

Another 125 contestants, and Sally Nielsen had her hands over her ears, unable to listen to her star spelling student take a crack at the second-round word.


Phuong had made it through the second round.

Now, Nielson closed her eyes as she heard the next word, "vendue."

Again, Phuong came back with a perfect answer.

On the fourth round, Nielsen was on the edge of her chair.

"Embosser," said the judge.

"E-M-B-O-S-E-R," replied Phuong.

The bell rang, Nielsen gave out a long sigh and the entry from McKinley Elementary School was off to the "crying room."

When it was all over, Phuong had placed 39th in the 1981 Northern Virginia Spelling Contest, not bad when you consider that Phuong could barely speak a word of English when he arrived here from Virginia six years ago.

In the crying room, (actually the band room at Lee High School in Springfield), Phuong was consoled by official soother Lillian Marzetta, perfect in the role as everyone's grandmother who described all the contestants as "winners." As Marzetta plied the losers with Pepsi, magician Ed Sparrow kept them laughing.

"Who knows how to spell eucalyptus?" he asked. "I don't."

And they roared when he pulled a stuffed skunk from his magic box instead of the promised live rabbit.

On stage, the tension was a little higher as contestants struggled with the likes of J-A-R-L (a Scandinavian nobleman or chieftan), G-E-L-I-D (extremely cold; frozen) and X-E-R-O-S-I-S (abnormal dryness).

At 11:05 p.m., just over four hours into the contest, four champions were left onstage, spelling their hearts out for the chance to compete in the National Spelling Bee, set for June 1 in the District.

Theodore Wu, an eighth grader at Frost Intermediate High School in Fairfax, was the first to go, when he spelled illth (the opposite of wealth) without the second "L."

Carolyn Ou, in the eighth grade at Fairfax's Cooper Intermediate School, breezed through "bedevilment."

But Kevin Neidlinger, a sixth grader at Mount Vernon Woods Elementary School, could only get as far as M-U-M, before the sound of the ominous bell signaled his defeat on "muumuu."

And now the rules changed, as Carolyn Ou faced off against Meaghan Hanrahan, a sixth grader at Springfield Estates Elementary School in Fairfax.

To wear the gold medal, the winner not only had to spell the word her opponent missed, but follow that by correctly spelling another word.

Methodically and patiently, Meaghan took the first shot: "R-e-c-a-l-c-e-t-r-a-t-e."

"R-e-c-a-l-c-i-t-r-a-t-e," came back Carolyn (with the correct answer).

But it wasn't over yet.

"Maggotry," pronouncer Dante Marzetta instructed.

Carolyn asked for a definition (it means absurdity). Then she bought more time by asking Marzetta to use the word in a sentence.

"It is 'maggotry' to lower federal spending for social services and increase spending for defense . . . so the Democrats say." replied Marzetta, a physicist at Johns Hopkins University.

Finally, Carolyn gave it a try -- and missed the secong "g."

Meaghan was alive again. Correct on "maggotry" -- and correct on "aerotrain."

The gold went to Meaghan.

And like any 11-year-old overcome by the thrill of victory, she did the natural: She cried.