After surviving six rounds of challengers heading into Saturday, Cooley Middle School seventh-grader Nila Dhinaker defeated 26 other spellers to win the 2014 AEF Arizona Spelling Bee.
The 12-year-old Dhinaker won the state championship by spelling the word “salvific” correctly at the March 29 contest, and she will represent Arizona at the 87th Annual Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington D.C. from May 25 to May 31. That trip is all-expense paid, and her prizes from winning the state event include $800, a Rosetta Stone language course and a version of “Webster’s Third New International Dictionary.”
“I didn’t expect to win; I was really surprised and happy,” she said. “I was like, ‘This is it, I won.’”
The concept of even earning that victory arrived as the number of competitors began to fade away one by one – one by one down to 10 competitors, then the top five and finally with Dhinaker all alone at the top. She said she was nervous the entire time, but the reaction to the win entailed a mix of joy and celebratory tears.
Her win last weekend was well earned, as Dhinaker said she worked around a rather busy schedule – her plate includes karate, band, orchestra, writing and duties as a Girl Scout – to study on the bus, in the car and those moments between the end of the school day and her extracurricular activities.
All of her studying paid off at the end, especially with that final word. Dhinaker said she wasn’t familiar with the definition – Merriam-Webster has it as “having the intent or power to save or redeem” – but she was familiar with the root of the word and could spell it from there.
Dhinaker’s record through the rounds up rounds of spelling includes one defeat at the regional competition – she took second there – and victories over everyone else. In a way, though, the number of students she’s bested extends beyond all competitors within her classroom, school, the Higley Unified School District, and the 26 on March 29; she’s technically bested all of the other competitors her competitors beat in each ensuing round as well.
That accounts for thousands of students across Arizona, although that doesn’t necessarily make her all that unique when compared with the defeats by many of her upcoming opponents.
“I’m just thinking the people who are coming here did the same thing,” she said.
Those other spellers, who Dhinaker said are from the U.S. and even the international level, also have to join her in one last test prior to the televised spelling bee. To make it to the top 50, she said the 250 people who make it to Washington have to take a preliminary written exam that whittles away a fifth of the entrants.
Although that presents a difficult challenge, Dhinaker has already gotten through a large number of spellers and is capable of meeting her goal of a top-40 finish.
“I got this far, even if I don’t win, I’m still a really good speller,” she said.
Eight, Arizona PBS will air the Arizona competition on April 11 at 9 p.m., and the video will be on its website, azpbs.org, after it airs.
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