Kiwi Kate drops out of the Spelling Bee (+photos)

By Jarrod Booker

A 13-year-old Christchurch girl has been knocked out of an American spelling competition regarded as the Olympics of the spelling world.

New Zealand champion speller Kate Weir was knocked out in the fifth round of the 2007 Scripps Spelling Bee in Washington early today (NZT).

The 13-year-old got one letter wrong in the word 'Jardiniere', beginning the word with a 'G'.

She was competing against the world's best young spellers in front of a television audience of millions.

And yet the 13-year-old, having gone further than any other New Zealander in the prestigious annual Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington DC, still managed to sound relaxed before today's events.

"I'm just feeling glad to have gotten this far. I really had no idea that I would even get past the preliminaries," she told the Herald from her hotel room yesterday.

Kate joined her mother, Paula, on their first trip overseas when she won this year's New Zealand National Spelling Bee and the right to represent the country in Washington.

The Scripps bee is a big affair in the US. The semifinals screen live on the global sports network ESPN and the American ABC network screens the finals to an estimated audience of 14 million.

By successfully completing a multi-choice test and spelling "eeriness" on stage, Kate managed to proceed in the event as about two-thirds of the international field were cut.

Her Kiwi accent was so foreign to the judges that there were some tense moments as they had to replay her answer to confirm she had got it right.

In the quarter-finals Kate was confronted with the obscure word "sopite".

She admitted she had never heard of it, but tried to spell it as it sounded and that was good enough to book her a place in the semifinals.

"Most of the ones in the last round have been ones that I would have had to guess at," Kate said.

The field of 286 has been pruned down to 107 for the semis.

New Zealand National Spelling Bee manager Janet Lucas, who also travelled to Washington, said Kate's "huge" achievement was so exciting it had her on the verge of tears.

Linwood College principal Rob Burrough said it quickly became apparent when Kate started at the school this year that she was special.

"She's got an inquiring mind that is fascinated by words."

The winner gets US$35,000 ($48,800), a US$5000 scholarship, a US$2500 savings bond and a set of reference works.

Crucial question

* To advance to the semifinals of the 2007 Scripps National Spelling Bee in the US, Kate Weir had to spell "sopite".

* Sopite: To lay asleep; to put to sleep; to quiet.

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