Kavya beat out 10 other finalists last night to win $37,500, a collection of reference books, and the champion's trophy. In her previous three appearances in the finals, she has finished 10th, eighth, and fourth. Her win this year makes her the seventh Indian-American in 11 years to take the title.
The final, winning word was "laodicean," which means lukewarm or indifferent in religion or politics. Kavya spelled it, and all of her other words, on the palm of her hand with her finger and ended with a smile. "The competitiveness is in her, but she doesn't show that," said her father, Mirle Shivashankar. "She still has that smile. That's her quality."
The family plans to celebrate her win by throwing a belated 13th birthday party. Kavya was too immersed in preparation for the bee to celebrate turning 13 last week.
All of the finalists were 13, except for second place winner Tim Ruiter of Centreville, Virginia, who is 12. He lost to Kavya when he misspelled "maecenas," which means cultural benefactor. "I had absolutely no clue about that word," said Tim. "I'll probably be spelling it in my sleep tonight." According to the Washington Post, he added, "I'm glad that she won, because this was her last year."
A record 293 students competed in the 82nd annual bee this year, and the youngest was only nine. 117 of the students speak languages other than English, and English is not the first language of 33 of the spellers.
It was the fourth year the competition, which began in 1925 with nine spellers, was televised. ESPN and ABC aired the finals, which featured 41 spellers. MSNBC reports that during the course of the day, five spellers were eliminated in the first round, then 20 were wiped out in the next round, so many that officials worried there wouldn't be enough spellers left for prime time. In an attempt to make the finals more entertaining for home viewers, officials had pronouncer Jacques Bailly tell jokes when reading the word in a sentence. For one word he read the sentence, "While Lena's geusioleptic cooking wowed her boyfriend, what really melted his heart was that she won the National Spelling Bee."
Coincidentally, last year's champion was also an Indian-American student who wants to be a neurosurgeon. Kavya said her role model is 1999 winner Nupur Lala, who was in the documentary Spellbound and is now a research assistant in the brain and cognitive sciences lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "But I don't think anything can replace spelling," Kavya Shivashankar said. "Spelling has been such a big part of my life."