ST. PETERSBURG — Nikitha Chandran's mastery of spelling is well known at her school.
People at Brandon Academy know her as the girl who has a knack for phonetics. The girl who aces vocabulary and English lessons. The voracious reader.
And the girl who, for the past two years, has come in second place at the Tampa Bay regional spelling bee.
That changed Saturday.
When Nikitha, 12, goes back to school on Monday, she'll be known for one more thing: C-H-A-M-P.
"It's like, I don't know, shocking!" she said, beaming while accepting hugs and handshakes after the contest Saturday at Admiral Farragut Academy in St. Petersburg.
As the region's top speller, Nikitha has earned a trip to Washington, D.C., for the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which is broadcast on television.
This year's local bee began with 25 students from four Tampa Bay counties. Many had competed last year or the year before, just like Nikitha.
"This is the fourth year I've coordinated this," said Heather Ewing, an English teacher at Admiral Farragut. "I've never seen a level of competition like this."
One by one, judges threw out complex words for the students. After a half hour, eight had been knocked out of the competition.
An hour and a half in, there were three.
And then, two: Nikitha and Tommy Foster, a Tampa boy who is homeschooled.
It was a familiar scene for both students, who've gone head to head twice before. Tommy came out ahead the last two years.
But when he got to the podium in round 14 on Saturday, he wavered.
The judge tossed out his word: hobbledehoy.
Several people in the audience exchanged puzzled glances. Tommy asked for the history behind the word.
"The word is of unknown origin," the announcer said.
"H-O-B-B-L-E—D-Y—H-O-Y," Tommy said.
A bell rang, signaling that the speller had missed.
It was now round 15 — the championship round.
Nikitha knew that if she got the next word wrong, Tommy would have another chance. If she got it right, she'd win the whole thing.
"When I'm sitting in the seat, I'm nervous," she said later. "But when I go to the podium, it all goes away."
She stepped up to the microphone. The judge called out her word.
Nikitha took a deep breath. Then she asked for the origin of the word. Then she asked to hear the word again.
Finally, she began to spell.
"Idiosyncratically. I-D-I-O-S-Y-N-C-R-A-T-I-C-A-L-L-Y. Idiosyncratically."
It took a few seconds for the judge to respond.
The crowd erupted. In the back of the room, a woman with blonde hair began to cry silently.
It was Betina Simon, Nikitha's seventh-grade English teacher.
"They were happy tears," she said later.
It was the first time Simon had attended the regional spelling bee. She's new to Brandon Academy.
"I was just blown away. So many schools don't teach spelling anymore," she said. "This is her thing, though. She's extremely self motivated."
Nikitha spent the past couple months preparing for the bee by studying about 100 words a day.
She said she'll likely do something similar to get ready for the national contest, which is May 27 to June 1.
For now, her father said, it's time to relax and enjoy the victory.
Kameel Stanley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643.