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California boy, 13, becomes country's top speller by getting 'serrefine' right
WASHINGTON -- Evan O'Dorney always eats fish before his spelling bees. The brain food apparently has served him well: He's the 2007 Scripps National Spelling Bee champion.
The 13-year-old from Danville, Calif., aced "serrefine" Thursday night to become the last youngster standing at the 80th annual bee. He triumphed after a tense duel with Nate Gartke of Spruce Grove, Alberta, who was trying to become the first Canadian to win.
Evan won a trophy and a $35,000 prize, plus a $5,000 scholarship, a $2,500 savings bond and a set of reference works. He said he knew how to spell the winning word -- a noun describing small forceps -- as soon as the pronouncer said it.
Evan said he wasn't surprised to win, but he confessed that spelling isn't his top interest.
"My favorite things to do were math and music, and with the math I really like the way the numbers fit together," he said. "And with the music I like to let out ideas by composing notes -- and the spelling is just a bunch of memorization."
Evan and Nate went head-to-head for three rounds, matching each other's correct spellings until Nate flubbed the medical word "coryza" by adding the letter "h." Until then, Nate had been quite the showman, waving celebrity-like to the audience after each word and basking in the cheers from a row that waved red-and-white maple leaf flags.
But Evan, who finished tied for 14th last year, was unflappable. The child who juggles at home while his mother calls out words appeared to be in trouble only once during the finals -- when he had to restart "schuhplattler," a German-based word describing a dance. At one point, Evan calmly cleaned his glasses while Nate spelled a word.
The day began with 59 spellers remaining from the record 286 who started the competition Wednesday. The field was narrowed to 15 finalists, but eight were gone after the initial round, and two more faltered in the next round, leaving a fivesome of Evan; Nate; 14-year-old Joseph Henares, of Avon, Conn.; 13-year-old Prateek Kohli of Westbury, N.Y.; and 14-year-old Isabel Jacobson of Madison, Wis.
Joseph faltered on "aniseikonia" (a visual defect), while Prateek missed "oberek" (a Polish folk dance) and Isabel was out on "cyanophycean" (a kind of algae).
Several of the top favorites were eliminated early in the finals, including last year's sixth-place finisher, Jonathan Horton, 14, of Gilbert, Ariz., who stumbled on "girolle" (a kind of mushroom). Tia Thomas, 12, of Coarsegold, Calif., competing for the fourth time, misspelled "zacate" (a grassy plant) and had to settle for a big hug from her father and a seat on his lap as the competition continued.
Another fourth-time participant, Matthew Evans, 12, of Albuquerque, N.M., couldn't handle "fauchard" (a long-handled weapon).
Earlier in the day, perennial favorite Samir Patel was eliminated in his fifth and final bee -- participants can't be older than 16 or be in a grade higher than eighth.
Samir, who last week likened the prospect of not winning to "Dan Marino not winning the Super Bowl," had the audience gasping in disbelief when he misspelled "clevis."
The 13-year-old Texan spelled out the word for a type of fastening device as "c-l-e-v-i-c-e." After placing third, 27th, second and 14th in his previous bees, he ended his bee career with a tie for 34th. Like Hall of Fame quarterback Marino, Samir will go down as one of the greatest at his craft never to win the big prize.
Samir wiped away tears as he talked about his gaffe.
"The first thing I thought was c-l-e-v-i-s, and if I had been slow and cautious like I always am, I would have got it right," he said. "But I just outsmarted myself. It was an easy word. I just made a stupid mistake."
Samir's mother, Jyoti, appealed his dismissal, based on subtle differences in the way the word's final syllable could be pronounced. Officials interrupted the following round to replay pronouncer Jacques Bailly's exchange with Samir, and later announced that the appeal had been denied.
"In the end, I think I said it right," Bailly said. "I really wanted him to get it right, and I'm really sorry that he or his family have some questions about it."
On the Net:
Scripps National Spelling Bee: http://www.spellingbee.com