SAN DIEGO - A county spelling bee champ has been crowned. The 44th annual local competition that sends the winner to the Scripps National Spelling Bee wrapped up just after noon on Wednesday at the Hall of Champions in Balboa Park.
All the competitors first had to win their school bees just to get to the countywide bee, which was grueling and at times funny, but mostly nerve-racking.
"The next word is oriel," Bee Master Dr. David Hay, adjunct professor of English at the University of San Diego, told competitor #82, Zane Shrem-Besnoy.
He along with all the spellers gave it their best shot.
Some used fingers to spell out the words and others turned to gum chewing. Sometimes, pronouncing the word was hard enough.
The words ranged from phenology and totipotency to brankursine and grobian.
The bee went from 107 competitors at the start down to only 25 by the end of the second round. The tension was thick.
Then, Giabao Tonthat, an eighth grader who attends Heritage K-8 Charter School in Escondido, received the word mycology.
"May I have the language of origin?" he asked.
"Greek," replied Hay.
After two minutes of saying the word or asking for it to be said and asking for it to be used in a sentence, there was a moment of levity.
"Can I have another word?" said Tonthat quietly.
"No," said Hay as the crowd erupted with laughter.
About 20 seconds later, the eighth grader took his best shot.
"Mycology," he said. "M-y-c-o-l-o-g-y. Mycology."
"That's correct," said Hay, causing Tonthat to break into a surprised grin as the audience burst into applause and cheers.
Those in the audience who took note of Tonthat because of that exchange did not seem surprised to see him in the final four.
After the other competitors misspelled their words, Tonthat spelled mussitation correctly.
Now, he had one more word standing between him and victory: bonspiel. Tonthat took his time, carefully spelling it.
"B-o-n-s-p-i-e-l," he spelled.
"That's correct, you win," said Hay as the crowd clapped.
Last year's winner, Snigdha Nandipati – who went on to win the 2012 Scripps National Spelling Bee – presented Tonthat with a dictionary and she had some words of advice.
"If you come across a word you don't know, spell it as it is," she said. "Keep it simple."
Tonthat says he has studied two hours a day since his first attempt at the bee last year.
"I was really nervous," he said. "I told myself I'd get past the second round."
The winning word, bonspiel, refers to a match in the sport of curling.
"I knew half of it," he said. "I knew 'spiel' but 'bon' I guessed on."
Tonthat says he will ramp up his studying for the national bee in Washington D.C. in late May. He will be one of 298 vying for the title.