As Abigail Carungay stepped up to the microphone in the final rounds of the Premier's Spelling Bee, the audience leaned forward in their chairs for two reasons.
The competition, in its third hour, was unbearably tense. And the diminutive nine-year-old's voice, despite her efforts to point the microphone as low as it would go, was tiny. But in her hushed tones, Abigail vanquished her competitors, correctly spelling words like ''croissant'', ''recessional'' and ''pique'' before winning the junior division with ''avail''.
''It made me feel amazing,'' she told Fairfax Media afterwards.
Back at Carlingford Public School, where her classmates had been listening to the livestream, the mood was jubilant.
''They would cheer and clap as she got it right,'' her teacher Robyn Kent said. ''She is the kind of child that is loved by everyone because she's such a gentle person.''
In an era of spellcheck and text speak, all 87 of the finalists demonstrated ability well beyond many of today's adults. The children, some as young as eight, ploughed through difficult words in the junior division including ''dossier'', ''nonplussed'', ''garrulous'' and ''camisole''.
But ranks were thinned by words like ''subsidiary'', ''deterrent'', ''meander'' and ''hackneyed''.
At times, the competition was brutal. In round five, one child could be heard quietly sniffling after being eliminated over the word ''judicious''. As the young girl dabbed her eyes and regained her composure, a fellow contestant stepped up to correctly spell their word. ''Distraught. D-I-S-T-R-A-U-G-H-T. Distraught.''
The competition gets harder every year, said Lloyd Cameron, speaking competition officer at the Department of Education and Communities. Once a novelty in Australia, only 800 students took part in the first state Spelling Bee in 2004. This year more than 131,000 students in public schools around the state took part, with finalists travelling to Sydney on Wednesday from as far as Parkes, Albury and Woodenbong.
Abigail was almost bested by the runner-up, Anja Myers, from Gundaroo Public School. Anja is the third child from her family to have made the finals, and correctly spelt words like ''abseil'', ''fastidious'' and ''cahoots'' in the competition, only to trip up, finally, on ''opulent''.
''I just feel really amazed that I made it up to this stage of the spelling bee,'' Anja said later. ''And I'm really proud … my mum kept getting texts from family members wishing me good luck so that really made me feel nice.''
Stuart Rich, from St Ives North Public School, the defending champion, won the senior division, with Samarth Shrivastava from Summer Hill Public School taking second place.