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November 19, 1998

Boston student wins adjusted bee

COLUMBUS, Ohio — James Lowalski of Boston became the nation’s first adjusted spelling bee champion yesterday. Under the rules of the event, children of dissimilar native intelligence are asked to spell words of relative difficulty.

Lowalski, an eighth grader at DeWitt Middle School, faced Anisha Samhula in the final round. Samhula, 14, is in her second year at Duke University’s medical school after completing high school at the age of nine and undergraduate studies at 12.

Establishing herself as the odds-on favorite in the semifinals by successfully spelling "triskaidekaphobia," Samhula was stumped in the finals by "xiphosuran," a term denoting "any of an order of arthropods made up of the horseshoe crabs and related extinct forms."

That opened the door for Lowalski, who claimed the crown with his clutch completion of the word "spoon."

The final was not without its drama. Lowalski asked for the word to be used in a sentence twice (each time receiving the same example: "I use a spoon to eat my soup."). The 12 minutes and 37 seconds Lowalski paused after the first ‘o’ is the longest any contestant has taken on a single letter and still gone on correctly to complete the word.

Afterward, Samhula was gracious in defeat.

"James was the better speller today," she said. "And he was a gentleman. Down the road, if he ever needs massive neurological corrective procedures, it would be my pleasure to perform them."

When told of his opponent’s scholastic accomplishments, Lowalski took a moment to brag himself. He said that if he shows up for every day of the summer-school session, he will be cleared to take heating and air conditioning as a sophomore.

"That’s my goal," Lowalski said. "Heating and AC. Heating and AC, baby."

Many spectators were unimpressed by the event, saying the bee’s newfangled rules are difficult to follow. Others doubted whether the event rewarded the best speller.

"I thought, given the differences in I.Q., the competition may have been imbalanced," said Sally Ryan, the mother of one participant. "In the quarterfinals, when that one oriental boy was asked to spell vicegerent — I’m not even sure I’m saying that right — I was surprised that James was given the word ‘label.’"

Organizers defended the choice, saying that over half of students of Lowalski’s intelligence would reverse the l and e at the end of label.

"Table. Fable. Cable," said bee chairman Paul Johannsen. "Hell, I might get that wrong."

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