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Barrington Middle School student takes 2nd place in national spelling bee

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Updated: May 31, 2013 10:00PM

OXON HILL, Md. — After placing 27th and 22nd in the last two Scripps National Spelling Bees, Pranav Sivakumar, a seventh grade student at Barrington Middle School-Station Campus, finished second place Thursday night on the national stage.

The Tower Lakes 13-year-old, who won three straight Lake County Regional Spelling Bees, rarely appeared flustered onstage. But he was ultimately tripped up by “cyanophycean,” a word for a blue-green algae.

After winning the Lake County competition in March, Pranav reported that he was three-quarters of the way through reading the dictionary cover to cover.

During the two months between the regional and national tournaments, spelling practice was a two-hour per day routine. Pranav’s study sessions include time reading the dictionary and a list of words the bee recommends.

“My goal is to get to the finals this year,” said Pranav, who came up one round short last year. “I’m going to continue my same routine, but study a lot harder.”

The national championship Thursday was won by Arvind Mahankali, a 13-year-old from Bayside Hills, N.Y., who conquered his nemesis, German, to become the champion speller in the English language. He correctly spelled “knaidel,” a word for a small mass of leavened dough, to win the 86th annual spelling contest.

Pranav Sriram Hathwar, 13, of Painted Post, N.Y., finished third, and Amber Born, 14, of Marblehead, Mass., was fourth.

Arvind, however, outlasted 11 other finalists, all but one of whom had been to the National Spelling Bee before, in nearly 2 1/2 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 originally 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.”

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 on stage 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.

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.

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,” which means a type of pigeon.

--Laura Pavin contributed to this report

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