From unplaced contestant to spelling champion

Rosyth School's Justinian Guan, 11, survived a whirlpool and spelt out the spirit of the age, so to speak, to win yesterday's RHB-The Straits Times National Spelling Championship.

The first-time participant spelt "maelstrom" and "zeitgeist" correctly to outgun Sng Hwee Woon, 11, of CHIJ St Nicholas Girls' School (Primary).

Only Justinian and Hwee Woon, both in Primary 6, were left in the seventh and deciding round of this year's finals, after 20 other finalists tripped over words such as "isosceles" and "labyrinthine".

Justinian stepped up to the microphone to confidently spell "maelstrom".

When it was Hwee Woon's turn, however, she misspelt "zeitgeist".

Competition rules mandated that Justinian had to spell his competitor's word correctly, which he did, to win.

He had not been tipped as a favourite, as he was unplaced in the north zone contest in the previous round, where Hwee Woon emerged as the champion.

It was also Justinian's first crack at the championship.

"I forgot to enter my school's preliminary rounds in 2013 and 2014," he said with a sheepish grin.

"But after attending last year's Big Spell finals, I realised, 'Hey, I could spell all the words. Surely I could do the same if I were in the competition.'"

He won $5,000 in prize money and The Big Spell challenge trophy.

Hwee Woon took home $3,000, while second runner-up, Neil Goh Ken Tze, 11, of Anglo-Chinese School (Primary) won $1,000.

The finals held at the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) College Central in Ang Mo Kio had participants spelling words from "porraceous" to "eglantine".

It was the culmination of seven weeks of competition, with a record 1,654 participants this year.

There were some 1,400 participants last year and about 1,200 competitors when the contest started in 2012.

The guest of honour, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong, encouraged the pupils to work hard consistently and practise spelling beyond the competition.

The top pupils of yesterday's finals will be invited to take part in a cross-border spelling competition, slated for November this year.

The RHB Spelling Masters will pit Singapore's top spellers against Malaysia's champions from its Spell-It-Right competition.

Organised by The Straits Times and the RHB Banking Group, in partnership with the Ministry of Education, The Big Spell is supported by the ITE College Central and the National Library Board, with Sports Hub Library and Suntec Singapore as venue partners.

Ms Norazzah Sulaiman, group chief governance officer of RHB Banking Group, said The Big Spell develops young people's command of the English language as well as their "personality, character and confidence". "The objective of wanting to develop children holistically has been met," she added.

Additional reporting by Ang Yiying, Amanda Liaw, Nurul Iiman Said and Klara Wyse

This article was first published on April 26, 2015.
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