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‘Mozambique’ spells success for 11-year-old at NM Spelling Bee

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A try, try and try again strategy paid off for 11-year-old Akansha Nanda, who beat out 45 competitors from around the state to become the winner of the 2018 New Mexico Spelling Bee.

The sixth-grader from Carlos Gilbert Elementary School in Santa Fe will represent New Mexico at the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., during Bee Week, May 27 through June 1.

Akansha Nanda, standing between her father, Nanda Kumar, left, and her brother Anirudh Nanda, holds her trophy after winning the New Mexico Spelling Bee on Saturday. Akansha, a sixth-grader at Carlos Gilbert Elementary School in Santa Fe, has placed in the top three at the state event three consecutive years. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Akansha, who aspires to become an ophthalmologist, has competed in the state-level contest each year since third grade, placing second in 2016 and third in 2017. She won in the 15th round of this year’s competition, by correctly spelling the championship word “Mozambique,” defined as a lightweight dress fabric, a word derived from the name of an African geographical area.

“I was nervous a lot. My heart was beating so fast,” Akansha said.

She said her most anxious moment came when asked to spell “coralline.” Her father, Nanda Kumar, said his daughter agonized over whether there were one or two R’s in the word, then remembered the ring he wears.

Kumar waved his hand, showing a coral embedded in the ring.

During a break at the state spelling bee at Sandia Prep, Samuel Le, a fifth-grader at Sandia Vista Elementary, smiles for a photo with one of his teachers, Brigid Fair. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Akansha and 13-year-old Eliana Juarez from Rio Rancho were the last two standing after three hours and 13 increasingly tense rounds. Eliana lasted one more round before she misspelled “Carbonari,” meaning the members of a secret political association in early 19th century Italy. She said the last letter of the word was E.

Nevertheless, Eliana was delighted at placing second in her first state-level spelling bee. After months of hard study, she’s looking forward to enjoying a spring break.

Milidu Jayaweera, an eighth-grader at AIMS in Albuquerque, struggles with a word during the New Mexico Spelling Bee on Saturday. He earned third place in the annual event. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Milidu Jayaweera, 13, an eighth-grader at Albuquerque Institute of Math & Science, earned third place. He remained steady and confident until faltering in the 12th round, leaving out a D in the word Kiddush, a ceremonial blessing pronounced over wine or bread in a Jewish home or synagogue on a holy day.

In addition to an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington for herself and one parent, Akansha received the championship trophy, Eliana and Milidu received medals.

From left, Dhruv Grandhe, a fifth-grader from Albuquerque, Samuel Le, a fifth-grader from Rio Rancho, Akansha Nanda, a sixth-grader from Santa Fe, and Lucas Robbins, a fifth-grader from Santa Fe, wait for their turn to spell during during the New Mexico Spelling Bee on Saturday. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

This year’s spelling bee drew 46 competitors – 19 girls and 27 boys. They ranged from 9 to 14 years old and they hailed from the state’s tiniest villages to the largest cities.

Before the start, Sheri Jett, head judge for the bee, explained the rules and gave the young competitors a practice round to familiarize them with the microphone and put their nerves at ease.

Around 200 parents and family members were there to support them, filling the event hall at Sandia Preparatory School. Diego Carrillo, 13, from Los Lunas, had more than a dozen extended family members, some from as far away as El Paso, wearing identical blue T-shirts.

“If he makes it to Washington, we’ll put his face on the T-shirts,” said his mom, Clarissa Franco, during a break.

Diego was eliminated in the fourth round when he misspelled “sauerbraten,” a word referring to a German style of roasted beef.

Students grappled with words from Arabic, French, Italian, Hawaiian and Native American languages.

Tension was high at times. In the seventh round, Rhys Triplett, a seventh-grader from San Juan County, appeared to have misheard the word “language” as said by pronouncer Ron Shaw and spelled “languish,” triggering an appeal. Judges paused for several minutes to confer and listen to the recording of the exchange. They denied the appeal, saying Rhys had repeated the word as “languish” and began spelling before the judges could intervene.