Spelling bee champions aren't just born that way. For the winner and runner-up in Thursday night's SpellBound regional spelling bee, success was a mixture of dogged preparation, parental support, great teachers — and maybe a little talent as well.

First place went to Ranitha Kumarasinghe, a sixth-grader from Orange Grove Charter Middle School in Charleston, who spread his arms wide in celebration after spelling his final word: "topeng."

You know, the Javanese dance.

"A lot of it is preparation, because if you were a natural-born speller and you didn't study at all, you probably wouldn't win," Ranitha said.

Ranitha knew that word, and many of the ones that preceded it — like gnathonic, diffa and keest — thanks to nightly study sessions with his parents, Anu Perera and Isuru Kumarasinghe. 

Runner-up Asher Wallen had some help as well. In between a packed schedule of academic competitions this spring — including strong showings at MATHCOUNTS and the SeaPerch robotics competition, which also took place Thursday — the Buist Academy eighth-grader worked in regular study sessions with his parents, Roma and Matt.

"He's very self-motivated, and he just works very hard," Roma Wallen said.

"He reaches well beyond what our expectations are," added Matt Wallen.

Asher said it also helped that his eighth-grade English teacher, Chris Garner, taught him to recognize spelling patterns and root words from various languages of origin.

The competition at Charleston Southern University's Lightsey Chapel began with 50 competitors drawn from the top finishers in Lowcountry school district spelling bees. All were vying for a single spot in the National Spelling Bee on May 31 in National Harbor, Maryland.

The chapel was deathly quiet, and the microphone at center stage picked up every mutter and groan from the spellers. The whole room could hear students who cracked their knuckles in preparation or heaved a sigh upon guessing a word correctly.

The words in the early rounds bore playful thematic touches, like in a crossword puzzle. Round 1 had several words from Mexican cuisine: quesadilla, chalupa, empanada, enchilada. Round 2 was loaded with musical vocabulary: crescendo, allegro, contrapuntal, oratorio.

After that, things got difficult in a hurry.

Some adults in the audience gasped as Evan O'Neill of Rollings Middle correctly spelled waterzooi, a Belgian stew dish. Brent Ebarle of Cane Bay Middle, last year's SpellBound champion, was toppled in Round 4 by kovsh, a Russian drinking vessel or ladle.

The final three competitors were Ranitha, Asher and Finn Hayes of Ashley River Creative Arts Elementary — all three hailing from the Charleston County School District. They dazzled the crowd with some obscure and counterintuitive spellings until Finn misspelled novillero (an aspiring bullfighter) and Asher misspelled mukhtar (the head of a village in some Arabic-speaking countries).

Ranitha corrected Asher's spelling and then nailed "topeng" to win it all.

If Ranitha was nervous under the bright lights of the chapel, he never let it show.

"I just ignore the crowd, really. I look at one of the empty spots," he said.

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Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.

Paul Bowers is an education reporter and father of three living in North Charleston. He previously worked at the Charleston City Paper, where he was twice named South Carolina Journalist of the Year in the weekly category.

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