Tim Ruiter studied some 20,000 note cards to prepare for the National Spelling Bee, only to be stumped by a skirt worn by men in the Balkans.
The 13-year-old from Centreville, Va., and the runner-up at last year's bee was eliminated in the first round of the semifinals Friday morning when he misspelled "fustanella."
"I'm feeling all right," Tim said after two long hugs from his mother outside the ballroom where the competition is held. "I don't have to work any more. I don't have to worry about anything tonight."
Forty-eight spellers began the day with the hope of being among the dozen or so to advance to the finals Friday night. Tim was one of 16 spellers who failed to get past the first semifinal round, a result so surprising that the other spellers and much of the audience gave him a standing ovation as he walked off the stage.
The word Tim was given was a doozy. Its roots went from Latin to Italian to Greek to Italian to English. He wasn't sure if it was one that he had printed on his mammoth stash of note cards back home. He misspelled it "fustinella."
"The Greeks must have messed it up," he said.
Like the other favorites, Tim knew all along that one bad word could derail his chances at the winner's trophy and the prizes that go along with it. Mother Vicki noted that, going into this year's competition, he had already achieved the perfect conversation opener for the rest of his life: "I finished second at the National Spelling Bee."
"He's had an experience most people never have," Vicki Ruiter said.