ST. PETERSBURG — Spell-check is for the weak.
Fifteen of the area's pre-eminent middle schoolers gathered at Saturday's spelling bee at Admiral Farragut Academy to compete in the art of reciting letters from memory.
After 11 rounds, Brandon Academy eighth-grader Alina Meador stood by herself on stage, one word away from the ultimate prize.
"If she misses," Admiral Farragut teacher Heather Baxter-Ewing told the crowd, "then the previous two spellers are still in. We begin a new round."
Then came the word: "Omnivorous."
A hush fell over the crowd.
"Omnivorous," Alina said. "O-m-n-i-v-o-r-o-u-s. Omnivorous."
Silence. Then: "That is correct."
And the crowd went wild.
Alina, 14, won the right to represent the Tampa Bay area in the 2009 Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. You know, the one on ESPN. But the drama wasn't over yet.
Next up: sudden-death overtime to decide second place.
• • •
Alina won a $100 savings bond, an expensive Webster's Dictionary, gift cards to Amazon.com and Borders, and an all-expenses-paid trip for her family to the nation's capital for the national spelling bee.
"I'm kind of shocked," Alina said, clutching her first-place trophy. "But excited."
She studied three hours a day for a month. Relatives, friends and teachers ambushed her with words.
"It's been brutal," she said.
It's not over. The national spelling bee will be held May 26-28. The final rounds are broadcast live on television.
Alina said the one word she almost tripped over was one that shouldn't have given her any trouble.
"Giraffe," she said. "It was too easy."
• • •
Sydney Dougan of Tampa's Farnell Middle School was word for word with Alina. Then she got the word — plural Latin — for those who claim to be enlightened.
"Illuminati," the judge said.
"Definition?" asked Sydney, 13. "Any other pronunciations?"
It didn't help.
"I know how to spell it," she said after the contest. "I just spelled it too fast."
She finished tied for second with 11-year-old Hajera Bano from Universal Academy of Florida in Temple Terrace.
"We have to have a spelloff," said Baxter-Ewing.
The crowd cheered.
• • •
Sydney went first.
"Incorruptible," she said. "I-n-c-o-r-r-u-p-t-i-b-l-e. Incorruptible."
"That is correct," the judge said.
Next, Hajera stood up:
"Can I have the language of origin?" the sixth-grader asked. It's Greek, she was told, passed on to Latin. The 11-year-old paused. Then she went for it:
"P-h-e-n-o-m-i-n-o-n," she said.
A ring of the bell ended it. Hajera fell to third.
"It was fun," she said afterward, "I guess."
Sydney was the runnerup in her last spelling bee. But this year, she had hoped to go all the way.
"It's disappointing," Sydney said. "But at least I don't have to study anymore."
Jamal Thalji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8472.