Kenneth’s legion of supporters.

MAGIC OF WORDS: By turns nerve-racking and enjoyable, the RHB-New Straits Times National Spell-It-Right Challenge 2014 finale was a triumph of all the contestants

IT was a long day of jumpy nerves, skill, strategy and endurance — nearly 12 hours of blood, sweat and tears that saw nervous anticipation, hushed disbelief and thunderous applause.

As brutally taxing as a physical sporting event, Oct 11 witnessed the intense showdown between 28 State champion spellers — 14 each from the Primary and Secondary categories — at the RHB-New Straits Times National Spell-It-Right (SIR) Challenge 2014 in Kuala Lumpur last week.

Held at the Plenary Theatre in Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre, the day began as early as 7am for some of the finalists and their supporters. The day before, 28 finalists either flew into Kuala Lumpur International Airport from their respective States — some came from as far as Sabah and Sarawak — or were chauffeured by their parents.

Supporters — family, friends, teachers and schoolmates — came in droves. Built to accommodate an audience of 300, all the seats were quickly filled up after the doors opened at 8am. At 9am, all who were present stood at attention when the Negaraku was played, signalling the start of the much-awaited event.

First on the cards was the Preliminary Challenge for the Primary School category. The nail-biting episode was filled with drama as one by one, the 14 contestants were given five words each to spell in a round robin manner. Presenter Anita Woo put the champion hopefuls at ease in a gentle and encouraging manner as she posed the words to them.

The antics of two Primary School contestants provided relief to an otherwise tense atmosphere. Zarriff Iman Nafidz Zahiril Anwar, 12, Year Six pupil from SK Bandar Baru Sintok in Kedah, kept rushing to the microphone when his turn came. Perak’s Sathyaswaruben Arunakiri, 11, from Year Five, SK Cator Avenue wore a cheeky smile whenever it was his turn.

And there were many a tense moment when words were wrongly spelt and contestants left the stage with heads hung low.

By noon, the top five finalists were identified and the lunch break kicked in.

Promptly at 2.30pm, the finale for the Primary School category started. In the running for the top spot were Ashvinaa Balachandran, 12, from Year Six, SK St Teresa in Sarawak; Arianna Sophea Adruin Shazaen, 11, from Year Five, SK Taman Bukit Subang in Selangor; Cristabel Ntakop Ndzi, 11, from Year Five, SK St Francis Convent in Sabah; Nur Sabrina Huda Hishamuddin,12, from SK Alai, Malacca; and — the thorn among the roses — Bryan Ng Tung Chen, 12, from Year Six, SJK(C) Han Chiang in Penang.

After a rocky start in the Preliminaries, Ashvinaa bounced back and clinched the Primary School champion title with “triskaidekaphobic” in a tiebreaker between her and Bryan.

Before the Secondary School category Preliminary round started, the audience “oohed” and “aahed” at an electrifying dance routine by LED Tron Dancers.

When the show ended, the finalists were introduced to the audience. As the name of the Secondary School category reigning champion Kenneth Wu Min Jin, 17, from SMK King George V, Negri Sembilan was announced, his two busloads of supporters went wild with cheers and waved banners bearing his name.

Presenter Raymond Goh proceeded in a firm manner, calling out five words for each contestant and at the rate they were going, it was anyone’s guess who would make it to the finale. But as the round progressed to an end, the top five finalists were announced.

They were Kenneth, Nur Izzahtul Diyanah Mohd Daud, 17, from SMK Lok Yuk Likas in Sabah; Azreen Marissa Adif, 15, from Kolej Yayasan Saad in Malacca; Darren Leong Wei Jin, from SMK St Michael in Perak; and Muhammad Shaheer Mat Shayuti, 17, from SMK Dato Ahmad Maher in Kelantan.

The top five finalists showed their prowess at spelling. Some words that astounded the audience were spelt with ease.

And the audience hung on every one of the letters articulated each time Raymond Goh gave a word for a finalist to spell. While some contestants were aloof, Kenneth and Darren showed great camaraderie and encouraged one another.

In the end, they were the last two standing at the finale.

Kenneth showed his mettle when he walked away as victor, spelling correctly five words — “polyphiloprogenitive”, “gesundheit”, “rhathymia”, “echt” and “poltroon” — of the seven that he was given.

The audience members in the hall — not least his supporters — could not contain their joy as the thunderous applause went on for quite a while when Kenneth was yet again proclaimed the champion, winning the National SIR Challenge for the sixth year in a row.

The celebrations continued with the performance of 14-year-old Natasha Sass, one of Asia’s youngest singing sensations, who recorded all her songs with award-winning US producer Nick Trevisick in Nashville. She had the euphoric crowd singing and grooving along with her as she performed her own material as well as some covers.

And as a fitting end to the day, it was certainly a magical moment for Kenneth when Deputy Education Minister II P. Kamalanathan presented the RM15,000 prize to him.

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