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June 9, 1999


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Nupur's Word Perfect Victory

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Sonia Chopra

Nupur Lala Several days after she won the National Spelling Bee champion, Nupur Lala clearly remembers standing alone on the stage in front of more than a dozen television cameras and several hundred people, wrapping her hands around her waist and holding her breath until she heard the final word for her.

It was 'Logorrhea', which means incoherent talkativeness, that clinched the championship for the 14-year-old Tampa Bay resident, who jumped with her arms in the air as she tackled the word correctly.

"I was in shock. I couldn't believe it at first but it sank in. It was incredible! It was overwhelming! It was exhausting!" said Nupur, recalling her winning moment when she was triumphantly holding the giant golden trophy on her knee, searching for her parents in the audience, as other contestants crowded around for autograph requests.

Nupur, a Louis Benito Middle School student in Tampa, said, she won by "keeping calm."

"There I was on stage with my legs shaking, butterflies in my stomach and my heart pounding. And I knew I could not get nervous or the championship would be lost. I just focused on one thing: how to spell the word."

Nupur sounded poised, self assured and very confidant. Seemingly unfazed by the media attention which she agrees is "exciting but it was a little aggressive, especially right after the championship itself. I wasn't really ready for so much exposure. I didn't do it for the media blitz. I did it for the glory of winning." One of "the most amazing things about the media blitz" was the Rosie O'Donnell show in which Nupur made an appearance Monday.

Last year, Nupur was eliminated the first day in the third round and said she has been hitting the dictionary ever since. "I kept quizzing and re-quizzing until the words were drummed into my head," she said.

Her success, she said, was the result of "studying, some divine intervention, and my family because they were really supportive. My parents, they would take turns quizzing me. When one got tired, the other would take over. They were my coaches."

Nupur said she practiced two hours per day to be ready for this competition but her father Parag Lala, 45, a University of South Florida electrical engineering professor, said that the real challenge was that he and his wife Meena, 40, are immigrants from India and were dealing with words that were unfamiliar even to Americans.

"Some of the words, we could not even pronounce properly ourselves," Parag said, adding, "Each time Nupur had a word to spell, he closed his eyes, nervously waiting [for her] to get it right."

"Last year when she was disqualified, Nupur cried for three hours," said Meena, a stay-at-home mother. This year, her mother knew all the words her daughter had studied and when she heard the final word, she knew it finally spelled out victory.

"I can hardly believe it. It was very tense in the audience and we would hold our breath until she got the word right,'' said Meena, adding that Nupur gets her memory retention from her father and both her children Nupur and Kunal, 11, are very good students.

Parag and Meena say they are absolutely bowled over by the response from the media and wellwishers. "The attention, it still hasn't gone away. The media was waiting for us at the airport and we thought it's all over by now. Who would still want to know more?" said Meena incredulously.

As a champion, Nupur wins $10,000 encyclopedias, two-airline tickets and computer software. She plans to go on a shopping spree and use the tickets for a trip to Hawaii or California, because "I've been on the East Coast my entire life,' Nupur said.

In 72 years of the competition, Lala is the second Floridian to take home the national trophy. In 1996, a West Palm Beach girl won with "vivisepulture," which means the practice of burying alive.

Nupur started last week in a match with 249 champion spellers at the 72nd annual Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee, held in a Washington hotel. Local newspapers sponsor most students, and Nupur's sponsor was the Tampa Tribune.

Her winning makes her school and her teachers very proud.

Nupur's eighth-grade language arts teacher, Odalys Pritchard, watched the final competition on television at home. "Every time she stepped up to the microphone, I held my breath but I knew that she knew the winning word because she was smiling, she looked confident and I was very happy and excited," said Pritchard, 29, who in her seven years of teaching considers Nupur to be "one of the most outstanding students she ever had.''

"She's very focused, very good writer and an avid reader. She constantly challenges herself and is a all around good student," said Pritchard, who added that Nupur had scored a perfect six in the Florida writing assessment exam that every student in the state is required to take and she was "set on winning the spelling bee and approached it with a single focus."

Out of the 1200 students in the school, Nupur has a special connection with her and another teacher Kaye Whitehurst, 50, who had traveled to Washington last year and who said in an interview that this year's win and last year's experience are her most memorable in 26 years of teaching.

"I still can't get over it. Last year she was so disappointed in herself. She said this year she was going to go back and at least make it on television," said Whitehurst, who said she "sat down on her bed and cried," because she was "so very happy" for Nupur.

"When I finally spoke to Nupur, she said I did it and she sounded thrilled and excited and then she tells me "I have to go. Fox News wants to talk to me" and I said to her, 'well, la-di-da'," said Whitehurst laughing.

Whitehurst, who has been a mentor to Nupur for many years said her student was a "high achiever who is quietly ambitious and very unassuming and consistently pressures herself to do the best at all times," and was making plans to pick up Nupur and her family at the airport and have a small party for them.

Whitehurst, who said she was not surprised at Nupur's victory, because she "practices and practiced until she was perfect," added that Nupur was going to be a doctor in neurology or pediatrics."

And, everybody anticipates that Nupur will continue to strive, achieve and reach the apex of her professional career.

"The field is unlimited for Nupur. I believe that this is the first of many contests that she will win," said Principal Lewis Brinson, 46, who personally knows Nupur and says she is "quite amazing."

These are the twelve words Nupur spelled to win her championship:

Ailanthus: a tree with pointed leaflets and a bad odor.
Extraordinaire: extraordinary, unusual, uncommon.
Corollary: something that follows logically after something else is proved.
Palimpsest: writing material used more than once after the original writing has been erased.
Balbriggan: a knitted cotton cloth.
Akropodion: the most prominent part of the heel.
Cabotinage: theatricality.
Trianon: a small, elegant villa.
Bouchon: a bushing on a watch.
Poimenics: the study of pastoral theology.
Nociceptor: a pain-sensing organ.
Logorrhea: incoherent talkativeness.

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