Top speller: Studying makes a difference

— A 13-year-old eighth-grader from Dallas nailed "pococurante" -- meaning indifferent or nonchalant -- to win the 76th Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee on Thursday.

It was Sai Gunturi's fourth time in the competition.

"I studied it," a beaming Sai said of the word after winning the contest, $12,000 and other prizes. "That's why I was kind of laughing."

Sai plays the violin and studies Indian classical music.

Last year, he tied for seventh place. He tied for 16th place in 2001 and tied for 32nd place in 2000.

"Actually, I started studying in fourth grade, and then I guess it's kind of like cumulative study all the way up to here," he said.

Evelyn Blacklock, a 14-year-old eighth-grader who is home-schooled in Tuxedo Park, N.Y., was the runner-up.

Earlier Thursday, Evelyn not only had to spell one of her words, she also fully experienced its meaning.

She stepped to the microphone at the sound of "tenebrosity," which means darkness, and began to question the announcer about its meaning. An unspoken answer came when the stage mysteriously went dark.

Unfazed, Evelyn lifted the numbered yellow square hanging from her neck and scribbled on the back of it with her finger before spelling, slowly and correctly, as the hotel ballroom's lights crept back on.

She later agonized over "anaphylaxis," a hypersensitivity caused by contact with a sensitizing agent, and "ganache," a sweet chocolate mixture used in baking, to advance another round.

In taped remarks, Education Secretary Rod Paige congratulated the 84 competitors who were still standing when the competition resumed Thursday, telling them they should be proud of making it to the finals.

"No matter whether you go out in the first round or become the next champ, your presence here spells only one thing," Paige said, then added: "S-u-c-c-e-s-s, success."

Jane Warunek, a 12-year-old eighth-grader from Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich., got a second chance after appealing her exit in the third round because she gave an alternate spelling of "diaconate." She later succumbed by misspelling "cernuous," which means drooping.

Some students moved closer to the final round by conquering such mouthfuls as "fissiparous," "platyhelminth" and "matripotestal."

Others drew the clang of the judge's bell after getting a word wrong. Among the stumpers were "preterlabent," "filipendulous" and "escheator."

The event opened Wednesday with a field of 251 youngsters, ranging in age from 8 to 15. Each received one word to spell; 175 did so correctly.

Next came a written spelling test, introduced last year as a way to speed the contest but ensure that every student gets at least once chance at the microphone.

The exam narrowed the field to 84, who made the cut by missing no more than 10 words. Nina Mathew, 11, of Pittsburg (Kan.) Middle School was eliminated by the exam.

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