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Sixth round is speller's swan song

Alas, Nabeel Rahman of East Amherst will not go down in history as one of the Tirthankaras of spelling.

Say what?

Well, in the Jainism faith, a Tirthankara is a person who has attained immortality through enlightenment.

And in the sixth round of Thursday's Scripps National Spelling Bee, Nabeel spelled it "Tirtankara."

In other words, Nabeel -- the Buffalo News' representative in the Bee for three straight years -- fell one "h" short of returning to the national finals for the second consecutive year.

"It's a Sanskrit word and I wasn't familiar with it," Nabeel conceded afterwards. "So I just tried to sound it out as best I could It was one of those words where you kind of had to know it from before."

Nabeel took his sudden exit in stride, and why not? At the end of round five, only 21 of the 278 spellers who entered the bee were still standing, and he was one of them.

Earlier in the day in round four, he correctly spelled "douceur" -- which, depending on the business you are in, is either a tip, a gratuity or a bribe.

And then in round five, he nailed "maquillage," a fancy word for cosmetics.

That performance, coming a year after Nabeel finished tied for 10th nationally, makes him the Buffalo region's most successful spelling bee entrant since since 1992, when Walter G. Holland of Ellicottville tied for eighth place in the national finals. Snigdha Nandipati, 14, of San Diego, won this year's bee.

This was Nabeel's third appearance at the national finals, and because he is now 14, it was also his last.

He's been studying daily for years now, but said the words have just kept getting harder year after year.

Not that he's complaining.

"These three years at the nationals were really fun," he said. "I'm so grateful that I came."

He said he never thought he would make it to the nationals even once when he started spelling in the first grade. Now an eighth-grader at Casey Middle School, he encourages other youngsters to spell in his footsteps.

"Even if you don't think you'll make it or you don't think you're good enough, just try it and you might," Nabeel said. "It's a really great experience."

Nabeel's parents, Drs. Sadiqur Rahman and Rashida Khanam, and his sister, Jennifer, can attest to that.

In fact, on a recent trip to the family's native country, Bangladesh, they discovered that Nabeel is something just short of a Tirthankara there.

"We were in a shopping mall, and this guy looked at my brother and said: 'Were you in the spelling bee?" Jennifer Rahman said. "And then he called over all his friends to meet us."