WASHINGTON -- When he heard the word "kamikaze," 14-year-old Geoff Hooper grinned. He knew he was about to become the nation's spelling champion.
Geoff, an eighth-grader from Arlington, Tenn., beat 234 other youngsters yesterday in the 66th annual National Spelling Bee. The two-day competition, sponsored by Scripps Howard Newspapers, ran for 16 rounds and was so intense at times that some participants described it as if it were a war.
"Everybody's pretty much going for survival," said 12-year-old Taylor West of Altavista, Va., a four-year veteran of the bee who was eliminated in the sixth round.
Youngsters ranging in age from 9 to 14 stumbled, mumbled and flat-out guessed their way through the likes of "bacilliform," "amanuensis," and even "flibbertigibbet."
Geoff breezed through his last two words, "enchilada" and "kamikaze," with no hesitation, to win the first prize of $5,000. He said the toughest obstacle of the day for him was "ankh," an Egyptian symbol of life, and added that defeating last year's national third-place winner in his county bee provided some confidence for victory in the nation's capital.
Members of the Maryland delegation to the bee survived until the sixth round, when Shuntae Royster, 12, of Havre de Grace, tripped up in "divaricate," an adjective meaning widely divergent. She dropped out only minutes after Mindy Surratt, 13, of Indian Head, misspelled "flibbertigibbet."
The other Marylanders -- Leah Frazier, 13, of Annapolis; Seth Edwards, 12, of Lusby; Seema Patil, 13, of Helen -- were stumped in earlier rounds. Jennifer Sri, 13, an honor student from Hagerstown, was the bee's first casualty, missing "chalaza" Wednesday.
The competitors, many of whom have siblings who had competed in the bees, traveled from 49 states, Guam, Mexico, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, the Virgin Islands and Germany, where a girl representing U.S. schools overseas lives.
Each had his or her own methods of preparing for combat.
Taylor West said she typed out spellings and definitions to hundreds of words in the weeks before the big event. Competitors had been given a book of 1,200 words to memorize for the first round of the bee, but words for subsequent rounds were chosen from Webster's Dictionary.
Since their arrival in Washington earlier this week, the spellers have been given the royal treatment, with special tours of the monuments, museums and even Fort McHenry in Baltimore. But they were most impressed by their competitors, who rattled off spellings for words that most adults would have difficulty even pronouncing.
"My goal was to make it farther than I had before," said Taylor, whose sixth-round elimination was her best showing yet. "It was a lot of fun."