After years of heartbreakingly close calls, Arvind Mahankali conquered his nemesis, German, to become the champion speller in the English language.
The 13-year-old from Bayside Hills, N.Y., correctly spelled "knaidel," the word for a small mass of leavened dough, to win the 86th Scripps National Spelling Bee on Thursday night. The bee tested brain power, composure and, for the first time, knowledge of vocabulary.
Arvind finished in third place in both 2011 and 2012, and both times, he was eliminated on German-derived words. This time, he got one German word in the finals, and the winning word was from German-derived Yiddish, eliciting groans and laughter from the crowd. He spelled both with ease.
"The German curse has turned into a German blessing," he said.
Arvind outlasted 11 other finalists, all but one of whom had been to the National Spelling Bee before, in nearly 2 ½ hours of tense, grueling competition that was televised nationally. In one round, all nine participants spelled their words correctly.
When he was announced as the winner, Arvind looked upward at the confetti falling upon him and cracked his knuckles, his signature gesture during his bee appearances. He'll take home $30,000 in cash and prizes along with a huge cup-shaped trophy. The skinny teen, clad in a white polo shirt and wire-rimmed glasses pushed down his nose, was joined on stage at the Washington-area hall by his parents and his beaming younger brother.
An aspiring physicist who admires Albert Einstein, Arvind said he would spend more time studying physics this summer now that he's "retired" from the spelling bee.
Arvind becomes the sixth consecutive Indian-American winner and the 11th in the past 15 years, a run that began in 1999 when Nupur Lala captured the title in 1999 and was later featured in the documentary "Spellbound."
Arvind's family is from Hyderabad in southern India, and relatives who live there were watching live on television.
"At home, my dad used to chant Telegu poems from forward to backward and backward to forward, that kind of thing," said Arvind's father, Srinivas. "So language affinity, we value language a lot. And I love language, I love English."
Pranav Sivakumar, who like Arvind rarely appeared flustered onstage, finished second. The 13-year-old from Tower Lakes, Ill., was tripped up by "cyanophycean," the word for a blue-green alga. Sriram Hathwar, 13, of Painted Post, N.Y., finished third, and Amber Born, 14, of Marblehead, Mass., was fourth.
The field was whittled down from 42 semifinalists Thursday afternoon, with spellers advancing based on a formula that combined their scores from a computerized spelling and vocabulary test with their performance in two onstage rounds.
The vocabulary test was new. Some of the spellers liked it, some didn't, and many were in-between, praising the concept but wondering why it wasn't announced at the beginning of the school year instead of seven weeks before the national bee.
"It was kind of a different challenge," said Vismaya Kharkar, 14, of Bountiful, Utah, who finished tied for 5th place. "I've been focusing my studying on the spelling for years and years."
There were two multiple-choice vocabulary tests — one in the preliminaries and one in the semifinals — and they were administered in a quiet room away from the glare of the onstage parts of the bee. The finals were the same as always: no vocabulary, just spellers trying to avoid the doomsday bell.
There was a huge groan from the crowd when Arvind got his first German-derived word, "dehnstufe," an Indo-European long-grade vowel.
Milking the moment, he asked, "Can I have the language of origin?" before throwing his hands in the air with a wry smile.
"I had begun to be a little wary of German words, but this year I prepared German words and I studied them, so when I got German words this year, I wasn't worried," Arvind said.
He appeared to have more trouble with "galere," the word for a group of people having a marked common quality or relationship. He asked for the etymology twice — French and old Catalan — shifted his body back and forth and stroked his chin before getting it right with seconds to spare.
Amber, an aspiring comedy writer and crowd favorite, bowed out on "hallali," a huntsman's bugle call. She said, "I know, I know," when the clock told her time was running out, and she knew she had missed it, saying "That's not right" as she finished her effort.
The bee's growing popularity is reflected in an ESPN broadcast that gets more sophisticated each year. In the semifinals, Amber got to watch herself featured on a televised promo that also aired on the jumbo screen inside the auditorium.
She then approached the microphone and, referring to herself, deadpanned: "She seemed nice."
Vanya Shivashankar, at 11 the youngest of the finalists, fell short in her bid to become the first sibling of a previous winner to triumph. Her sister, Kavya, won in 2009. Vanya finished tied for 5th after misspelling "zenaida," the word for a type of pigeon.