"Coulduptinsntencpl?" Natasha Cox asked from a ballroom stage surrounded by lights, cameras and sweating parents. Translated from nervous mumble, that was: "Could you put that in a sentence, please?" Good question, considering 12-year-old Natasha's job was to spell some strange word called saprogenous.
But it didn't help. She botched a few vowels, then was off to the Comfort Room -- a refuge of water and tissues that 154 other students visited yesterday to recover from what is surely the most serious contest on Earth: The 63rd annual National Spelling Bee, a two-day marathon inside the Capital Hilton.
In the end, one girl, 13-year-old Amy Marie Dimak, of Seattle, stood alone in a competition that began with 9 million students across the country. Then she correctly spelled two French words: douanier and fibranne, which of course look nothing like they sound.
For that triumph, Amy earned $5,000. She was stoic in victory. "I worked three times a week, for two hours a day," said Amy, who wants to be a teacher. "I also spent two summers learning how words in French were formed."
A nice break on a day when luck was in short supply for so many other aspiring champions. Like Marchelle Ebbensgard, who had been given the word unassimilable to spell. "Definition, please," she asked. "Not assimilable," came the judge's reply.
Then there was Lisa Ishimaru, who battled a word called resipiscence. "Read it in a sentence," she asked. The judge looked into her big 10-year-old eyes, and replied: "The one-time political agitator claimed he had been through a resipiscence and was now seeking a seat in Congress."
It was like that for eight hours. All these absurd words. So much time between turns. Staring into klieg lights and about 50 rows of parents and reporters. Then months of work, up in smoke because of spelling a wrong prefix.
"Everyone is terrified up there," said Kanika Bahl, an eighth-grader from Ohio participating in her fourth National Spelling Bee. "You try to hide it, but you can't. There's nothing else to do but wait. It's easy to go crazy."
Nevertheless, most students seemed to relish the game. They were pros at fishing for a word's roots, pros at stalling when they had no clue what to do. For those who were near tears once they lost, there were escorts to lead them off stage and into a room with two white doors bearing an ominous sign: COMFORT ROOM
AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY
Then the escorts pivoted and returned to the stage, smiling, to lead another body out. It was grueling to watch. Students were confronted by words from Webster's Third New International Dictionary that stood for Chinese artichokes, Brazilian timber trees, primitive reptiles, even the clinical diagnosis of fear of dust (amathophobia).
And at times students who had relatively easy words were tripped up by the incredible tensions. Jeff Nolan, of Oklahoma, got the word curmudgeonly.
"Would that be related to the word kerplunk?" he asked.
There were awful ironies too. One student left the stage after misspelling the Japanese word sayonara.
The French language, it seemed, collected the most victims of the day. It nabbed Darby Bookout, of New Mexico, whose father, J.W. Bookout, had trouble remembering what the word was.
"Had about six letters, I think," he said. "Darby said, 'Daddy, but I never even heard of that word before.' "
Another student, William Dolan, of Texas, repeatedly startled the crowd with his tactics.
In each round, he strode to the microphone on stage, grabbed it with one hand like some rock star, and awaited his word. Then he put his mouth one centimeter from the mike and shouted: "WHAT DOES IT MEAN?"
In all, 226 students participated in the bee -- a record number.
Eric Enders, a 13-year-old Sherlock Holmes buff from Texas, finished second.
He took care of the words querimonious and valetudinary, but stumbled on douanier, the French word for a customs officer. Still, he received $4,000.
Eric felt pretty good. And so did Brian Green, a fifth-grader from Fairfax County, who got tangled in a German word. "I was hoping to get some Japanese words, because I speak a little Japanese," Brian said.
"Yeah," said his dad, Joseph Green. "He knows sayonara, and he knows the different kinds of sushi."