31cojocaru FOR WEB ONLY/MD

By Edward Felker

WASHINGTON -- Catherine Cojocaru wants to become a film director someday. But she first hoped to win the National Spelling Bee -- and came close on Friday.

After nine rounds of success, the Holy Spirit School eighth grader was unable to master the Russian word "bogatyr," in the 10th round. She ultimately placed tied for eighth place and netted a $1,000 prize in addition to gifts given to all spellers.

The winner was Sameer Mishra of West Lafayette, Ind., who made his fourth appearance at the national bee. He won in the 16th round by spelling "guerdon," a feat that earned him $35,000 in cash, a $2,500 bond and more than $4,000 worth of reference books and other gifts.


Catherine, 14, won the state bee in March and was one of 288 spellers who began the 81st national bee on Thursday. It was her second consecutive national bee appearance, and with her high placing she easily bested the tie for 60th she achieved at the 2007 bee..

As one of 12 finalists to emerge from the semifinal rounds that ended Friday afternoon, she established herself as one of the nation's elite spellers. She did not disappoint when the bee’s final rounds resumed live on national television Friday evening, despite multiple interruptions for commercial breaks and televised feature segments.

In the eighth round she correctly spelled "Huguenot," a word for French Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries, and in the ninth spelled boulangere, a French cooking word. Catherine appeared well versed in foreign language words, which she credited to the work she did with her coach, language professor Jeff Kirsch of the University of Wisconsin.

Yet a Russian word was her undoing. After pushing the pronouncer for multiple readings of the word, language of origin (Turkish to Russian) and definition (one of the legendary Medieval heroes of Russia) she scribbled on her left palm with her right index finger, seeking to visualize the correct spelling.

"Can I have any more help?" she asked at one point. After shrugging her shoulders as she pondered the word, she began: "B-O-G-A-T-E-E-R."


With that, she became one of four out of 11 spellers in the 10th round to hear the dreaded error bell. Catherine turned away to join her parents, Mary Ann and Lucian Cojocaru, who were seated on stage in the parents section, and dropped her head into her hands briefly.

Later, Catherine said she had studied the word at one point in the distant past and vaguely remembered it. "That made me kind of mad," she said. "It was Turkish and Russian. How many people would know that?"


In the end she tried to keep it simple. "That’s what I did with anticum." Anticum was her seventh round word, where she made an educated guess, one that got her into the finals. Earlier in the day she also spelled "sporangiophore," and "redoppe."

Toward her goal of making her own movies as she works toward a career in films, Catherine said she wants to spend her winnings on an Apple computer so she can edit video. Though the national bee has been made into a movie and a documentary, she said the bee was far different in real life.

"In the movies you can predict what’s going to happen and here you can’t do that." Much of the outcome had to do with the words thrown at the spellers, she said. "Some really good people got some really weird words and their luck wasn't so good for them."

Indeed. She observed that the eighth and ninth round words were all taken from the bee’s consolidated word list, which is made up of 23,413 words used in past national bees and is available online for anyone to use. In the 10th round, however, judges began taking words from the dictionary. Justin Song, an eighth grader from San Diego, was felled first in the round by the Indian word "satyagraha." Others went out of the round on the words "lapies" and "parfleche."

This was the final bee appearance for Catherine, who will begin her freshman year at Lourdes High School this fall. Her advice to next year’s state champion? "Study a lot, but don’t get too sad it you get out because it’s just luck."

Earlier in the day, following the semifinals, Catherine gave credit to Kirsch for helping her with foreign language words and word roots. "He taught me a lot I had not known last year. I got way farther than I did last year and I’m so grateful for his help," she said at a press conference held for the 12 finalists following the seventh round.

To date, Minnesota has had just one national champion. Sean Aitken of Anoka won in 2001 in the 16th round.

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