HOSCHTON - For a girl on stage with people hanging on to her every word - no, letter - Sonam Vashi was nonchalant.
And she could spell it, too.
The Pinckneyville Middle School eighth-grader survived a challenge that sent her offstage, then brought her back into the competition before capturing first place in Gwinnett's countywide spelling bee.
Wearing jeans and a salmon-colored shirt with a blue hoodie unzipped over it, Sonam spelled most of her words with her arms crossed in front of her, reciting the letters in a sing-song voice.
"I just think how to spell it," she said. "I see it in my mind."
She almost got out on "orthodontist," a word the 13-year-old with braces sees on an office door frequently. Judges said they heard her spell "D-I-S-T," but after her father challenged the result and the tape was reviewed, Sonam was readmitted into the competition.
Sonam covered her face with her hands when her father, Dipak Vashi, approached the judges' table, but said she was glad to be readmitted.
"I wasn't even thinking," she said. "I thought, 'I'll just sit down now.' I was given a second chance. For a second, I didn't think it was really fair. But if I did spell it right, I guess I should be up there."
Sonam won the competition, which was sponsored by the Gwinnett Daily Post, by spelling "legitimacy" then "platypus" correctly in succession. Hanfei Wang, the second-place finisher, hit his leg after getting "legitimacy" wrong, then put his hands to his face when Sonam won the bee.
"I gave that last word away," the Duluth Middle School sixth-grader said. "I was like, 'Oh my gosh. Now, she's going to take advantage of my mistake.'"
Hanfei, who said he told Sonam the same thing, said she thanked him for the present.
One of the most engaged spellers, Hanfei nodded his head as his competitors got their words right and danced away from the microphone after asking for definitions of his words.
Hanfei correctly spelled "gallon," "austere," "census," "motley," "acquisition" and "rhetorically," while Sonam got "trouble," "indelible," "disciples," "orthodontist," "nonchalant," "vesuvian," "legitimacy" and "platypus" right to win the $200 top prize.
All 11 spellers in the oral competition will advance to the District Spelling Bee at Collins Hill High School Feb. 24.
Shreya Vashi, Sonam's mother, said she was thrilled with her daughter's success.
"I know her ability," Shreya Vashi said. "She underestimates her ability a lot."
Sonam is an avid reader - she is in the middle of "The Diary of Anne Frank" - and said she owes most of her vocabulary to books. The family planned a dinner at a restaurant to celebrate - Sonam was in the mood for Mexican - and said she was looking forward to her father's offer to be at her beck and call all weekend.
"I'm going to go home, watch a lot of TV, eat, get fat and hate myself in the morning," Sonam said.
She said other spellers should try their best and not feel bad if they don't win. Hanfei, who wore red and ate Chinese food for good luck, suggested studying another language. He won $75 in the competition and said while he was both relieved and heartbroken to take second place, he was pleased to make the top 11.
"Gwinnett's a big county," he said. "I said I wouldn't make a lot of mistakes on stage. It didn't work. I didn't make that many. Just the crucial one."
Walker Argendeli, the bee's third-place finisher, scored the highest on the written test, missing just six of 60 words, bee coordinator Cindy Gaskins said. That bee narrowed the top 80 school winners down to the 11 that would advance.
Walker got out on "whiffle" during the oral bee. The eighth-grader at Summerour Middle School asked for definitions, etymology or sentences for every word he spelled. He said that was because as a fifth-grader, he watched a student get out for spelling "walk" when the judges wanted "wok."
"I wouldn't have thought of that," he said. "Ever since then, even if I know the word, even if I'm certain there's no other spelling, I always like to know."