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Grueling match ends in victory for Sebastian County fifth grader at Arkansas spelling bee

Written finale puts Sebastian County contestant on top by Grant Lancaster | March 12, 2023 at 8:40 a.m.
Zeeshan Mahmud Anower, 10, from Woods Elementary in Fort Smith spells a word during the Arkansas State Spelling Bee at the Arkansas 4-H Center near Little Rock on Saturday. Anower would go on to win the state competition. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Colin Murphey)

A 10-year-old from Sebastian County took first place in the Arkansas State Spelling Bee on Saturday, triumphing after a grueling head-to-head bout with the runner-up that ended in an unconventional final heat.

The victor, Zeeshan Anower, will go on to represent the state in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in National Harbor, Md., in May.

Anower and Matthew Brodbent of Cross County tangled for more than 40 minutes after competitors from 53 other counties had been eliminated. They went back and forth, attempting to spell words originating from a variety of languages, from the common Latin and Greek roots to terms of Hawaiian and Icelandic origin.

To win, one of the boys had to spell two words correctly after his rival had missed one. Because the competition this year had been stiffer than usual, the judges had exceeded the words on the official lists and moved into uncharted territory, causing each boy to miss words, although neither of them could seal the deal.

Finally, after a break, the judges brought Anower and Brodbent back and read five words -- ametropia, hylozoism, avodire, lomilomi and pseudepigrapha -- for the two to write. The one who got the most correct was the winner.

It was the first time that the competition had to resort to the written finale, said Rob Roedel, communications director for the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas, which sponsored the event at the Arkansas 4-H Center near Little Rock.

Anower said that he and Brodbent both worried their penmanship and not their spelling would be what let them down in the final round.

"I honestly have terrible handwriting," Anower said.

The judges did not reveal which of the final words that the competitors spelled correctly, but Anower was declared the winner.

Carter Metcalf of Marion County took third place, with five kids awarded fourth place and 10 more tying for fifth.

Anower won a $575 cash prize, a six-night hotel stay for the Scripps national bee, a 2023 U.S. Mint proof set and a online subscription to Britannica and Merriam-Webster.

Brodbent was awarded a $300 cash prize, while the contestants in third to fifth place each got a $100 cash prize.

It was Anower's first time competing in spelling bees, and he said he joined because his brother was doing it. On stage, the fifth grader has a peculiar tactic for focusing on his spelling -- he follows along with each letter using American Sign Language with his hands.

Signing started as a hobby for Anower, he said, but he's gotten pretty good at it, and discovered it helps him keep track during the competitions. The nonverbal communication system first interested him as a way to understand those who can't or have trouble speaking, he said.

Brodbent, who took third place last year, said he was determined to improve his record because it's the last year he's eligible to participate.

He was happy to show improvement against a competitive field and thought he did well considering he only had three weeks to prepare using the word lists available. He had only been able to review some of the more difficult words the day before the competition.

"Obviously, my brain's a little bit tired," Brodbent said afterward.

Anower said he was excited to advance to the national competition but didn't know yet if he'd be interested in joining next year's spelling bee circuit.

  photo  Ximena Camille Larsen (far right) from Sharp County spells a word during the Arkansas State Spelling Bee at the Arkansas 4-H Center near Little Rock on Saturday. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Colin Murphey)


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