Twenty-five words remained to be spelled as three contestants, including two Indian American teenagers, entered the championship round of the national 2015 Scripps Spelling Bee, held May 28 at the Gaylord Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland.
Cole Shafer-Ray, who had deftly buzzed his way through 10 previous rounds, upstaging five Indian Americans and two others in the process, missed on acritarch – a small organic fossil – spelling it with an o, rather than an i. Shafer-Ray good-naturedly left the stage, taking third place, leaving Gokul Venkatachalam and Vanya Shivashankar still standing.
As an audience of nervous parents and millions of ESPN viewers looked on, 14-year-old Venkatachalam, an 8th grader at Parkway West Middle School in Chesterfield, Missouri, and 13-year-old Shivashankar, also in 8th grade at California Trail Middle School in Olathe, Kansas, faced down the 22 remaining words.
“These two are incredible,” proclaimed ESPN announcer Paul Loeffler as Shivashankar and Venkatachalam blazed through the list.
“Neither one has given an inch; there is no sign of emotion,” said ESPN announcer Chris McKendry. “The dictionary is no mystery to them,” he added.
The two competitors displayed very different styles: Venkatachalam asked for and used the roots of words to quickly determine his answers. Shivashankar was more circumspect, fingering the letters for words on her palm, before spelling them aloud.
And finally, just two words remained: as her sister Kavya – who had won the Bee in 2009 – nervously watched, Shivashankar correctly spelled scherenschnitte, the art of paper cutting in a design form, after asking pronouncer Jacques Bailly – who moderated the event – about the origin of the word, alternate pronunciations and a definition.
Then Venkatachalam came on, knowing that his answer would determine the fierce match. Without hesitation, the middle-schooler quickly spelled out nunatak – an exposed ridge or mountain peak not covered in snow – without asking a single question.
Confetti rained down around the two as they were declared co-champions.
“I knew that word; that’s why I could spell it so quickly,” Venkatachalam told India-West after his victory. The co-champion said he spent a lot of time on vocabulary as he prepared for the Bee, familiarizing himself not just with spelling but meanings of words. “If you know the word, it’s going to be a lot easier,” he said.
This was Venkatachalam’s second shot in the championship round; last year, the teenager took third place during the championship rounds, losing to dual champions Sriram Hathwar of New York and Ansun Sujoe of Texas. Last year’s competition was the first time in 52 years that two champions were declared.
Venkatachalam Krishnan – the champion’s father – credited his wife Sreepriya Vaidyanathan for his son’s win, noting that she coached the lad by employing the science of spelling.
“My contribution was 20 percent: making them good food, doing the dishes and the laundry,” Krishnan told India-West with a laugh.
The father said his son had gone back to look at mistakes he made during his previous bids for the championship and learned from those errors. “We always tell him, ‘don’t worry about the outcome; do your best and go forward.’”
Shivashankar, who has previously competed five times at the national Bee, told India-West she was confident throughout the championship round, but would not allow herself to think of a win, concentrating only on the word she was facing.
“Kavya gave a lot of good advice to definitely have fun, and to enjoy and treasure the moment,” she said.
Shivashankar next plans to go on to the Science Olympiad, and will try out for the team when she begins 9th grade this fall. The ambitious young girl –who also plays the tuba and piano, and recently won the Mid-America Music Association award for Exceptional Pianist and Jazz Pianist– said she hopes to enter the medical field after finishing school, possibly as a cardiac surgeon.
Mirle Shivashankar, Vanya’s father, told India-West he was confident his daughter would win. “Some of the words, I knew she knew right away,” he said.
Shivashankar said Kavya and Vanya are complete opposites of each other, but at the Bee, Vanya exactly mirrored her sister’s style for the win.
“It’s not just about the spelling anymore. You have to be prepared to spell in front of all these cameras, cope under pressure, and blank out everything else,” said Mirle Shivashankar.
Both fathers addressed the online xenophobia that has plagued their children after their wins. “These kids are as American as anyone else,” Mirle Shivashankar stated to this publication. We’re not concerned with people who have nothing better to do than write nasty things on the Internet.”
“I would ask them, ‘can you spell xenophobia?’” said Mirle Shivashankar with a laugh.
“People who work hard and put in the right amount of effort are bound to win,” said Krishnan.
Also competing in the final round was Snehaa Ganesh Kumar, a 7th grader from Folsom, Calif., who tied for fourth place with the affable Dev Jaiswal, 13, of Louisville, Mississippi; and Siddharth Krishnakumar, a 7th grader from Pearland, Texas.
Tejas Muthusany, a 6th grader from Glen Allen, Virginia, tied for 7th place with 14-year-old Paul Keaton of Pikeville, Kentucky. Siyona Mishra, 11, from Orlando, Florida, tied for 9th place with Sylvie Lamontagne, a 7th grader from Lakewood, Colorado.
There were no 5th, 6th, or 8th place winners.