After months of training, in the end it took Kavya Shivashankar, 13, just nine correct letters to be crowned the new US spelling champion.
She correctly spelt Laodicean, meaning to be lukewarm or indifferent in religion or politics, to claim victory in the 2009 Scripps Spelling Bee.
A record 293 spellers, including 28 from countries outside the US, had made it to the final stages of the contest.
Among the 9-15 year olds were 33 who speak English as their second language.
The spellers in the Washington DC auditorium were confronted with a baffling range of words, often used only rarely in American English.
They could ask for a word's part of speech and language root and although they did not need to know its meaning, were allowed to ask for a definition if they thought it would help them make more sense of challenges like "apodyterium".
Many, like "passacaglia", were once foreign words that have been adopted from other languages.
"This country is made up of people of so many different nationalities, and all of them brought their languages here," Barry Bridwell, the father of one of the competitors, told the AFP news agency.
"That's what makes the English language and this competition so difficult."
His daughter, Keiko, lost her chance of victory by incorrectly spelling "thylacine", a carnivorous Tasmanian marsupial.
"I spelled it with an 'o' instead of an 'a'," she said.
The second prize went to 12-year-old Tim Ruiter, who tripped up on the word "maecenas", meaning a generous benefactor.
"I had absolutely no clue about that word. I was just racking my brain for anything possible that could help me," he said.
"I'll probably be spelling it in my sleep tonight."
The contest has been open to spellers from countries outside the US since 1978, and this year 28 children from the Bahamas, Canada, China, Ghana, Jamaica, New Zealand and South Korea took part.
Kavya, who comes from Kansas, had made the top 10 in each of her previous three appearances at the bee.
She was the seventh Indian American to win the contest in the past 11 years and took home a $30,000 (£18,500) cash prize, several reference collections and a large trophy.
"I can't believe it happened, it feels kind of unreal," said Kavya, who had traced each word on her hand as she spelled it.
Her father, Mirle, said the day was a "dream come true".
"This is the moment we've been waiting for," he told the Associated Press.
"We haven't skipped meals, we haven't lost sleep, but we've skipped a lot of social time."
That missed social time included his daughter's last birthday, as the intense training had left no time for celebrations.
"Spelling has been such a big part of my life," said Kavya.
She hopes one day to become a neurosurgeon but said that nothing would ever replace spelling.
With words such as "acrocephaly", "glossopharyngeal" and "vestibulocochlear" featuring in her chosen profession, she may not have to worry.