13-year-old N.J. girl wins spelling bee
WASHINGTON - A 13-year-old New Jersey girl making her fifth straight appearance at the Scripps National Spelling Bee rattled off "ursprache" to claim the title of America's best speller on prime-time television Thursday night.
Katharine Close, an eighth-grader at the H.W. Mountz School in Spring Lake, N.J., is the first girl since 1999 to win the national spelling title. She stepped back from the microphone and put her hands to her mouth upon being declared the winner.
"I'm just in shock," Katharine said. Asked what she'll remember most, she said: "Probably just hearing 'ursprache,' which is a parent language." She recognized the word as soon as she heard it.
The winner goes home with more than $42,000 in cash and prizes.
Runner-up was Finola Mei Hwa Hackett, a 14-year-old Canadian, a confident speller during two days of competition who stumbled on "weltschmerz."
Third-place went to Saryn Hooks, a 14-year-old from West Alexander Middle School in Taylorsville, N.C., who was disqualified earlier in the evening, then returned to competition after the judges corrected their mistake. Saryn fumbled on "icteritious," which means of a jaundiced color.
Driven by the popularity of recent movies, books and a Broadway musical on the seemingly improbable theme of spelling hard words, the bee featured prime-time television coverage for the first time in its 79-year history. ABC broadcast the final from 8 p.m. until the winner was crowned just after 10 p.m. EDT.
Spellers took to the stage minutes before the broadcast, huddling and chanting "1-2-3, Spell" before taking their seats. Their parents sat on stage, too, across the aisle.
The broadcast had the flavor and style of a sports program, opening with a montage of the competitors and including a short profile of the first speller before he got his word. Each word or grimace by spellers triggered a blast of camera shutters, and the live TV camera followed the losers into the arms of comforting parents.
Even gamblers got into the act, putting money down on questions including whether the final word would have an "e" in it and whether the winner would wear glasses. Simon Noble, CEO of PinnacleSports.com, said his offshore Internet sports betting company had received about $70,000 in wagers on seven propositions about the bee as of noon Thursday.
The pace of competition, held in the basement ballroom of a Washington hotel, was slowed by the need to accommodate commercial breaks in the TV coverage provided by ABC, as well as earlier by ESPN.
"We're out for another two-minute commercial break," or "We're out for about a minute and a half," bee director Paige Kimble announced frequently, connected by headset to the network directors.
The competition paused for ABC to air commercials pitching credit cards, fast food, cell phones, digital cameras, clothing stores, breath fresheners, allergy medication, storm doors, kids movies, spray-on sunscreen, electric shavers for men and pastel-colored razors for women.
The competition began Wednesday with 274 fourth- through eighth-graders.
The spellers sat below hot lights on the red-and-blue, made-for-TV stage. On Thursday, all wore matching white, short-sleeve polo shirts with the bee logo on the left chest.
Spellers made it to the finals by winning contests in the 50 states, as well as in American Samoa, the Bahamas, Canada, Europe, Guam, Jamaica, New Zealand, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
ESPN has broadcast the second day of the bee since 1994. This year, in a nod to the popularity of "reality TV," the championship rounds were moved to ABC for a live, prime-time event before a larger viewing audience. The Walt Disney Co. owns both networks.
All the attention follows a series of bee-centered developments in the popular culture.
"Akeelah and the Bee," a movie about a Los Angeles girl who overcomes adversity to win the national spelling bee, opened nationwide in late April.
That followed last year's "Bee Season," about a man focused on his daughter's quest to become a spelling bee champ. It was based on the best-selling novel by Myla Goldberg.
Also last year, the Broadway musical, "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," won two Tony awards. And the 2002 documentary "Spellbound" followed eight teenagers during their quest to win the 1999 National Spelling Bee.
The Louisville Courier-Journal started the bee in 1925. The E.W. Scripps Co., a media conglomerate, assumed sponsorship in 1941.