Veeramani wins for Cleveland

WASHINGTON -- Who says Cleveland can't win a championship?

The long-suffering sports city -- which can't seem to win a
trophy on a court or a field -- captured one in a hotel ballroom
Friday night when 14-year-old Anamika Veeramani took first prize at
the 83rd Scripps National Spelling Bee.

"Go Cavs!" Anamika said, shortly after accepting the winner's
trophy, which also comes with more than $40,000 in cash and prizes.

The Cavaliers, of course, lost their bid to win the NBA title
this year, which allowed star center Shaquille O'Neal to drop by
earlier in the day and film a segment for his reality show.
Anamika, who lives in the Cleveland suburb of North Royalton, has
never been to a game but is a big fan.

The eighth-grader also plays golf, likes to dance, wants to go
to Harvard and become a cardiovascular surgeon. She has the
demeanor to pull it off: She stood deadpan with her hands behind
her back after spelling the winning word, the medical term
"stromuhr," and didn't crack a smile until the trophy was

"It was too surreal," she said. "It was an amazing
experience. I usually have a poker face, so that's what that was."

Anamika, who finished tied for fifth last year, became the third
consecutive Indian-American champion, and the eighth the last 12
years. It's a run that began when Nupur Lala won in 1999 and was
featured in the documentary "Spellbound."

But she broke a long Ohio drought, becoming the first bee winner
from the state since 1964. Her parents have promised her a cell
phone for winning "and basically anything I want."

There was a three-way tie for second among the 273 spellers who
started the three-day competition Wednesday. Adrian Gunawan, 14, of
Arlington Heights, Ill.; Elizabeth Platz, 13, of Shelbina, Mo.; and
Shantanu Srivatsa, 13, of West Fargo, N.D., were all eliminated in
the same round.

Anamika survived the round by spelling "juvia" -- a Brazil nut
-- and then had to sit through a tense 3½-minute commercial before
spelling the championship word.

"It was just really nerve-racking," Anamika said. "The
commercial breaks didn't really help."

There was also plenty of drama before the finals, thanks to an
unpopular move that had some spellers and the parents claiming the
bee was unfair and had kowtowed too much to television.

Concerned that there wouldn't be enough spellers left to fill
the two-hour slot on ABC, organizers stopped the semifinals in the
middle of a round early Friday afternoon -- and declared the 10
spellers onstage would advance to the prime-time broadcast,
including six who didn't have to spell a word in the interrupted
round. Essentially, the alphabetical order of the U.S. states
helped determine which spellers got to move on the marquee event.

"I would rather have five finalists, than five who didn't
deserve it," said Elizabeth, the finalist from Missouri and one of
the four spellers who spelled a word correctly before the round was
stopped. "I think it was unfair."

It's one of the pitfalls of the growing popularity of the bee,
which has to yield to the constraints of its television partners.
There were 19 spellers left at the start of the round, which was
too many for prime time. But when the round turned out to be brutal
-- nine of the first 13 misspelled -- ABC was on the verge of having
too few.

"I don't feel bad at all for giving these children the
opportunity," bee director Paige Kimble said. "Do I wish we could
give it to 19? Yes, certainly, but that's not practical in a
two-hour broadcast window. We know it's unpopular and we don't like
to do it, but sometimes you can get into a position where that's
exactly what you have to do."

Kimble stressed that the move was within the rules and that the
round would pick up where it left off. Only the spellers remaining
at the end of the round would officially be declared finalists.

Still, the episode renewed the debate over whether the bee has
come too close to selling its soul to television.

"They already have," said 14-year-old two-time bee participant
Sonia Schlesinger, who represented Washington, D.C., last year and
Japan this year and was eliminated in an earlier round. "It kind
of seems like the bee should be more about spelling. We're just
here to spell words -- not about TV."

Even O'Neal unintentionally got caught up in the furor -- in the
name of TV footage.

The NBA star created a buzz when he walked onstage and
challenged last year's winner, 14-year-old Kavya Shivashankar, to a
spell-off for his "Shaq Vs." reality show. Afterward, O'Neal
posed with the 10 remaining spellers who were unofficially being
billed as "finalists" -- adding more fuel to the debate over
whether it was fair for all of them to be there.

"Just because one person lives in California and another person
lives in Wisconsin, it doesn't mean the person from California
deserves any less attention," Sonia said.