ST. PETERSBURG — Tommy Foster calmly walked up to the microphone Saturday like it was the 3-point line on a basketball court.
He waited for his shot. What is the definition of the word, he asked? The pronunciation? Language of origin?
The 11-year-old inhaled. Then he aimed for the basket.
"Bellicose. B-e-l-l-i …" he said, then paused, "c-o-s-e. Bellicose."
"Correct," the judge said. Swish.
Nikitha Chandran strode to the microphone like she was flying towards the rim: "Peloton. P-e-l-o-t-o-n." The 10-year-old was on her way back to her seat before the judge could say it:
And on it went Saturday, as the Tampa Bay regional spelling bee title came down to a one-on-one game of spelling. The prize: a trip to the 2010 Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C.
• • •
Tommy is a Carrollwood sixth-grader homeschooled by parents Jim and Chris Foster.
He earned his spot in Saturday's contest at Admiral Farragut Academy by winning the regional spelling bee for Tampa Bay's homeschooled students.
To prepare, he studied more than just the letters in the words.
"I learned to spell by where the words came from," he said, "and knowing the language helps me spell them."
He's got a system, too. He asks questions, takes his time and scratches out the word on his forearm with his index finger.
"I write it down, and if it doesn't look right," he said. "I'll spell it again until it looks like the word I studied."
• • •
Nikitha, a fifth-grader at Brandon Academy, entered her school's spelling bee just to see what would happen.
"She came home and said 'I won the spelling bee,' " said her father Nadar Chandran, 40, "then it was like, what are we going to do now?"
Cram for two whole weeks.
"Next time we'll be a little bit more prepared," said her mother, Sumita Chandran, 35.
• • •
The field of 23 was whittled down to two.
Tommy was patient. Nikitha let it fly.
On and on it went, for 28 words. And then: "Surficial."
For once, Nikitha stood silent. For once, she asked questions.
Then she let loose: "Surficial," she said. "S … i-r … f-i-c-i-a-l."
A chime sounded. Incorrect.
Tommy needed to spell two words right to win it: "Draconian" and "pronounceable." As usual, he didn't rush the shot.
"Definition please?" he asked. Then: "Pronounceable. P-r-o … n (he wrote on his arm) … o-u-n … c … e … a-b-l-e. Pronounceable."
"That is correct," the judge said, and the cheering began.
Next stop: nationals June 2-4 for Tommy and his family.
"I'm really happy but I'm in shock," he said. "I can't believe I won."