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Friday, May 30, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bee spells a w-i-n for Dallas teen

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — A 13-year-old eighth-grader from Dallas nailed "pococurante" to win the 76th Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee yesterday.

It was Sai Gunturi's fourth time in the competition.

"I studied it," a beaming Sai said of the word after winning the contest, $12,000 and other prizes. "That's why I was kind of laughing." The word means indifferent or nonchalant.

Sai plays the violin and studies Indian classical music. His father, Sarma, is a chemical engineer, and his mother, Lakshmi, is a homemaker.

Sai tied for seventh place last year. He tied for 16th place in 2001 and tied for 32nd place in 2000. His sister, Nivedita, tied for eighth place in 1997.

"Actually, I started studying in fourth grade, and then I guess it's kind of like cumulative study all the way up to here," he said after surviving the grueling, 15-round contest by spelling such words as "rhathymia," "dipnoous" and "voussoir."

Evelyn Blacklock, a 14-year-old eighth-grader who is home-schooled in Tuxedo Park, N.Y., was the runner-up.

Earlier yesterday, Evelyn not only had to spell one of her words, but was able to experience its meaning fully.

She stepped to the microphone at the sound of "tenebrosity," which means darkness, and began to question the announcer about its meaning and origins.

An unspoken answer came when the stage mysteriously went dark.

Unfazed, Evelyn lifted the numbered yellow square hanging from her neck and scribbled on the back of it with her finger before spelling, slowly and correctly, as the hotel ballroom's lights crept back on.

In taped remarks, Education Secretary Rod Paige congratulated the 84 competitors who were still standing when the competition resumed yesterday, telling them they should be proud of making it to the finals.

"No matter whether you go out in the first round or become the next champ, your presence here spells only one thing," Paige said, adding: "S-u-c-c-e-s-s, success."

There were plenty of sighs of relief, high-fives and clenched fists jabbed into the air by the students who spelled correctly, and frowns and shrugs by those who were escorted off stage after their errors.

The event opened Wednesday with a field of 251 youngsters, ranging in age from 8 to 15. Each had one word to spell; 175 were correct.

Next came a written spelling test, introduced last year as a way to speed up the contest but ensure that every student has at least one chance at the microphone. This year's bee is the largest in history, and spellers now tend to take more time before answering. The exam narrowed the field to 84, who made the cut by missing 10 words or fewer.

Three of Washington state's four participants were eliminated by the exam — Travis Stephens, 12, of Manchester Christian Home School in Port Orchard; Natasha Smith, 13, of Manhattan Home School in Burien; and Samantha Davis, 14, a home-schooled student from Okanogan. Colin Findley-Meier, 12, of Conway School in Conway, Skagit County, exited in the first round after misspelling "quatorzain."

Copyright © 2003 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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