First-timer Sophi Tan Xuan, nine, became the youngest winner of the RHB-The Straits Times National Spelling Championship yesterday after beating 20 other finalists .
Two months of practice, which included standing at the top of a flight of steps at an MRT station and spelling out words to her father who stood at the bottom, paid off for the Primary 4 Raffles Girls' Primary School pupil.
She won with the correct spelling of "intelligentsia", guessing from its pronunciation.
At the announcement of her victory, she threw her hands in the air. She out-spelt Ho Wing Yip, 11, from Catholic High School (Primary), in the final face-off, pushing him to second place.
Third place went to Aloysius Khoo, 12, from St Joseph's Institution Junior. Both boys are in Primary 6.
CHAMPION: Sophi Tan Xuan, nine, Primary 4, Raffles Girls' Primary School
WINNING WORD: Intelligentsia
RUNNER-UP: Ho Wing Yip, 11, Primary 6, Catholic High School (Primary)
SECOND RUNNER-UP: Aloysius Khoo Kai Jun, 12, Primary 6, St Joseph's Institution Junior
Sophi, who was unplaced in the South Zone two weeks ago but made it to the finals, is the youngest champion in the five-year history of the annual competition. Past winners were either Primary 5 or Primary 6 pupils.
The elder child of a pilot father and homemaker mother, she later said of her final-round opponent: "I thought, he's older than me so he's probably going to win, but I'll try my best anyway."
OVERHEARD AT THE FINALS...
I cleaned my ears...
If you can't even hear the word clearly, it's bad news.
HO WING YIP, 11, Primary 6 pupil from Catholic High School (Primary), on what else he did besides looking up words and working on spelling techniques to prepare for The Big Spell. He took second place.
I was thinking, oh no, why is this happening again? But then again, I felt very happy that I had a second chance.
ALOYSIUS KHOO, 12, Primary 6 pupil from St Joseph's Institution Junior. He and three other competitors were knocked out of the same round, leaving just two competitors on stage to battle for first and second place.
Aloysius and those eliminated in the same round were called back for a spell-off to find a third-place winner. Two weeks earlier at the zonal round, he was also in a lengthy spell-off with schoolmate Dilan Tan, who won third place.
She bagged $5,000 and the challenge trophy for her school. The runner-up won $3,000, and second runner-up, $1,000.
Despite being pipped at the post for the top spot, third-time competitor Wing Yip was in high spirits over his best performance so far in The Big Spell. He was the North Zone champion two weeks earlier.
When he found himself one of the last two on stage, he thought: "Wow, that's amazing!"
The game preceding the showdown for the championship was evenly matched throughout, with four pupils playing for third place, which eventually went to Aloysius.
The audience was caught up in the gameplay as well, giggling at words like "chihuahua" and sucking in their breath at longer ones such as "hypothyroidism".
The Big Spell is jointly organised by RHB Banking Group and The Straits Times, in partnership with the Ministry of Education (MOE). It is supported by Nanyang Polytechnic and the National Library Board, with venue partners Singapore Zoo and Suntec Singapore, and audio and sound partner Philips.
Ahead of the competition proper, an audience of finalists and invited guests and supporters heard from guest of honour Janil Puthucheary, Minister of State for Education, as well as Communications and Information.
He said hard work and enjoyment are some of the key takeaways from competitions such as The Big Spell.
He later told The Sunday Times after the round that competitions such as The Big Spell allow students to find an area they can excel in.
"These are the ways that each student can find a niche that they can work hard at, practise something and see the success they can get," he said.
RHB Bank Singapore country head Jason Wong noted that the competition had grown from 1,200 participants in its inaugural year to 1,805 registrants this year at its preliminary round in March.
The Straits Times deputy editor Ignatius Low remarked that The Big Spell was just one of the ways in which students learn through the news, among other events and projects championed by The Straits Times Schools team.
These include the ST-MOE National Current Affairs Quiz for the pre-university crowd and the National Youth Media Competition for students.
"I sometimes like to think of this competition as Outward Bound (Singapore) for the mind," he said.
"Not all of us can be stars on a running track or in the pool. In The Big Spell, there may be no ropes to climb, nor canoes to paddle, but through taking part in the competition, they learn to be humble in a win, and gracious in defeat."