Nicole Frische began preparing for Saturday's spelling bee last summer, studying with a special computer program and asking her parents to quiz her on the weekends.
But on Wednesday, three days before the Chattanooga Times Free Press Regional Spelling Bee, Nicole got sick. She had a 101-degree fever, and her throat hurt.
So when she approached the microphone inside the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's Fine Arts Center on Saturday afternoon, Nicole could barely squeak the desired letters from her mouth.
But volume doesn't matter in the spelling bee; accuracy does. And each time, all 35 times, she stayed on point.
Nicole, a sixth-grader at Loftis Middle School, won the regional spelling bee for the second year in a row. She will represent this area at the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., in May.
Frische beat 61 other children in the competition, including runner-up Jessica Pierce, a Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts sixth-grader. For 17 rounds, the two girls engaged in a war of words -- albeit polite words with several syllables and Latin roots. When Jessica spelled "I-N-T-A-G-L-I-O," Nicole matched with "C-O-R-P-U-S-C-L-E."
Other top-five finishers were McCallie School sixth-grader David Horne, Normal Park Museum Magnet fifth-grader Franklin Pezzuti Dyer and Signal Mountain Middle/High School sixth-grader David Cornea.
Nicole said after the bee that she'd started to feel better, or at least well enough to return to school, Friday. There, in the sixth-grade hallway, she saw a poster. Her face was on it. It was supposed to encourage her.
"I was a little worried," she said. "I thought if I didn't win the school would close or something."
Though her voice remained hoarse Saturday, Nicole was not allowed to take water on stage, so her mother, Diane, brought her a bottle during breaks between rounds. As the competition lasted past its second hour, Nicole feared her duel with Jessica would last so long that the competition's pronouncer, UTC School of Education Director Valerie Rutledge, would have to turn to words for which nobody prepared.
In the end, however, Jessica added an extra "A" to "D-E-F-A-M-A-T-I-O-N." To win, Nicole had to spell correctly two words: "F-I-D-G-E-T-Y" and "N-O-N-P-L-U-S." When she heard the words, she felt relief.
"I was like, 'Are you serious?' Those are so easy,'" said Frische, who as winner earned $600, a dictionary and a trophy almost half her size.