Thirteen-year-old Evan O'Dorney of Danville, Calif., breezed through the Scripps National Spelling Bee with barely a hitch Thursday night, taking the title, the trophy and the prizes in a competition that he confessed really wasn't his favorite.
The home-schooled eighth-grader easily aced "serrefine" — a noun describing small forceps — 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.
Afterward, Evan spoke more enthusiastically about attending a math camp in Nebraska this summer than about becoming the English language's top speller.
"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, who tied for 14th last year, won $35,000 cash, 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 as soon as the pronouncer said it.
Evan's victory came even though he wasn't able to stick to one of his superstitions. In previous bees, he has always eaten fish before competition, but he revealed he didn't do that this time because it wasn't on the menu of the Spelling Bee dinner.
Asked whether he liked the bee more now that he's won it, Evan said: "Are you saying I'm supposed to like it more? Yeah, I do a little bit."
Evan's father, Michael, is a subway train operator in the San Francisco area. His mother, Jennifer, is in charge of Evan's schooling.
"He memorizes well, he analyzes well and he guesses well," Michael O'Dorney said.
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.
Evan, meanwhile, was virtually unflappable. The kid 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).
Evan seemed to take his victory in stride, a sharp contrast from the stunning moment in the Grand Hyatt ballroom hours earlier when perennial favorite Samir Patel was eliminated in his fifth and final bee — participants must be younger than 16 and can't be past the eighth grade.
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."