'Close' Call In National Spelling Bee

Katharine Close, of Spring Lake, New Jersey reacts to winning the 2006 National Spelling Bee, Thursday, June 1, 2006, in Washington. AP Photo/Lawrence Jackson

For the first time in seven years, a girl has the honor of being called America's best speller.

Katharine Close, a 13-year-old New Jersey girl making her fifth and final appearance at the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee, aced "ursprache" to claim the title.

The eighth-grader at the H.W. Mountz School in Spring Lake is the first female winner since 1999. After hearing the familiar word during Thursday's final on prime-time television, she knew she would win.

"I couldn't believe it. I knew I knew how to spell the word and I was just in shock," said Katharine, who stepped back from the microphone and put her hands to her mouth after the judges declared her the winner following 20 rounds of spelling. "I couldn't believe I would win."

Katharine, who said she practices an hour or two a day "depending on how much homework I have," acknowledged that luck played a part in her victory. She had studied "ursprache" – which means a parent language – but didn't know the words that eliminated the third- and fourth-place finishers.

"I was relieved I didn't get those," Katharine said Friday on CBS News' The Early Show.

Katharine, who tied for seventh-place last year, goes home with more than $42,000 in cash and prizes, including an engraved trophy cup.

Runner-up was Finola Mei Hwa Hackett, a 14-year-old Canadian, a confident speller during two days of competition who nonetheless stumbled on "weltschmerz." The word means a type of mental depression.

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.

Katharine, who always kept her hands in her pockets as she spelled her words, said she wasn't trying to look cool — she was actually holding a good-luck pendant.

"It's an angel pendant," Katharine said, removing it from her left pocket. "It was given to me by a family in my town and I always put it in my pocket during spelling bees. I think it brings good luck, for some reason."

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.

The prime-time broadcast made for an exceptionally long night for the spellers. By comparison, last year's champion emerged just after 4:30 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. Profiles of other spellers followed during subsequent commercial breaks, and each pause in the competition brought a groan from the audience.

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 announcements drew frequent groans from an audience interested in faster action.

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 bee 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.
  • Peter Stevenson

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