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LI middle-school student banks $15G by placing third at national spelling bee

Bhavana Madini of Plainview,  and her family.

Bhavana Madini of Plainview,  and her family.  Credit: Family photo

Who knows how a 13-year-old can spell words like "theodolite" and "phylloxera," but Plainview middle-schooler Bhavana Madini did that and more as she battled her way to a third-place finish in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Orlando on Thursday.

Afterward, the super speller did what any kid would want to do: She went to Disney World, and then to Universal Studios.

She also gets to bank $15,000 in prize money.

"I'm really glad because I did work very hard," said the honor student at Plainview-Old Bethpage Middle School, who just finished seventh grade. "It takes a bit of luck, but I'm very glad."

Bhavana also won a bet with her mother that if she finished in the top five, she could get a dog. So when the family returns home, Bhavana will receive a Maltese dog, which traditionally has a white coat, hanging ears and a tail that curves over its back.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee is the nation's largest and longest-running competition of its kind, having launched in 1925. More than 200 spellers earned their spots by advancing through local and regional bees, and the final rounds were broadcast live on ESPN2 with play-by-play commentary.

The contest drew extra attention because the winner, Zaila Avant-garde, 14, of New Orleans, became the first African American to win the contest.

Bhavana was eliminated when she misspelled the word "athanor," which is a type of furnace that maintains a steady heat for long periods. She added an "e" to the end.

Bhavana's spelling prowess was spotted by her first-grade teacher, and she's been the middle school champion for three years.

Dorothy Drexel, the middle school assistant principal, said district principals, students and staff watched on TV as Bhavana competed in the finals, with texts and screen shots flying back and forth as she advanced.

Drexel said she was impressed not only with Bhavana's wizardry with words, but her attitude. She didn't boast when she won the school spelling bees. When it was time for the top finishers to call their parents from school with the results, Bhavana waited patiently for the others to finish their calls.

"She's a very kind and thoughtful little girl," Drexel said. "She's a role model."

Bhavana is no stranger to the national spelling stage, as she finished 51st in the 2019 contest. She says she gets a lot of help from her mother, father and sister.

Her proud mother, Arul Arasu, says the two have spent countless hours searching the dictionary for obscure words, learning various Greek and Latin roots, and quizzing.

"The pandemic provided a lot of time to study," the mother said.

She believes Bhavana is learning important life lessons along the way about staying calm under pressure and the rewards of hard work.

"I feel that through the competition, she's learned to handle success and failure," Arasu said. "No one succeeds all the time. You have to bounce back and have perseverance."

Beyond the spelling bees, Bhavana says she enjoys being out in nature and reading biographies, something she picked up from her grandfather. She hopes to one day be a heart surgeon.

For now, she says she's considering whether she'll compete again next year. But these days are all about Disney rides such as the Pirates of the Caribbean, her favorite.

And, of course, she's looking forward to naming her new dog.

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