Seven Indian Americans among eight co-champions of National Spelling Bee

Spelling Bee champions
The eight co-champions of the 2019 National Spelling Bee, from left to right: Shruthika Padhy, 13, of Cherry Hill, New Jersey; Erin Howard, 14, of Huntsville, Alabama; Rishik Gandhasri, 13, of San Jose, California; Christopher Serrao, 13, of Whitehouse Station, New Jersey; Saketh Sundar, 13, of Clarksville, Maryland; and three Texans — Sohum Sukhatankar, 13, of Dallas, Rohan Raja, 13, of Irving, and Abhijay Kodali, 12, of Flower Mound. Photo credit: Scripps National Spelling Bee

In epic competition, each co-winner receives $50,000 among other rewards.

NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland – In a marathon, memorable competition, eight adolescents including seven Indian-origin kids, were crowned co-champions of the 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee. It was unprecedented in the Bee’s 92-year history which has seen two co-winners in three consecutive years, but never so many recipients of the top prize.

Addressing the “champion spellers,” the Bee’s official pronouncer Dr. Jacques Bailly gushed, “We’re throwing the dictionary at you, and you’re showing the dictionary who’s the boss.”

Dr. Bailly who has moderated the Bee for 18 years and is a former champion (1980) himself, acknowledged that the organizers were “in uncharted territory. We do have plenty of words remaining on our list, but may run out of words that can possibly challenge you – the most phenomenal assemblage of super spellers in the history of this competition,” he said.

The “super spellers” were: Shruthika Padhy, 13, of Cherry Hill, New Jersey; Saketh Sundar, 13, of Clarksville, Maryland; Christopher Serrao, 13, of Whitehouse Station, New Jersey; Rishik Gandhasri, 13, of San Jose, California; Erin Howard, 14, of Huntsville, Alabama; and three Texans – Abhijay Kodali, 12, of Flower Mound, Sohum Sukhatankar, 13, of Dallas, and Rohan Raja, 13, of Irving.

Each kid will receive $50,000 in cash along with other prizes – a generous gesture from the organizers, befitting the caliber of the contestants.

It was another triumphant moment for the community — for twelve consecutive years, children of Indian origin have won the prestigious competition, a unique sporting event which tests their mastery over words, and this year saw seven incredibly inspiring students at the top!

Shruthika, an eighth grader at Rosa International Middle School, became the first to win from New Jersey since 2006 when she nailed ‘aiguillette’ (a shoulder cord worn by designated military aides). An experienced speller, this was her fourth and final appearance at the Bee: from 2016 to 2018, she tied at 22nd, 7th and 10th places, respectively.

Accomplished to the core, Shruthika remained calm and composed throughout an exhausting competition that began at 10 in the morning with 50 finalists and ended at midnight in the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center located just outside of Washington. Both the daytime and evening events were extended by some 90 minutes each, given the uncanny proficiency of the spellers.

For Saketh, in eighth grade at Clarksville Middle School, the winning word was ‘bougainvillea’ (any of a genus of the four-o’clock family of ornamental tropical American woody vines and shrubs with brilliant purple or red floral bracts) which made him the Bee’s first champ from the state of Maryland. With a brilliance far exceeding his young age, Saketh confidently spelled words like ‘doronicum’, ‘roskopf’, ‘psammosere’, ‘passepied’, ‘cytherean’, ‘vraic’ and ‘makimono’ that most Americans may never have heard of.

Christopher, in seventh grade at Readington Middle School, was pronounced co-champ upon correctly spelling ‘cernuous’ (of a plant, inclining or nodding). Earlier, he sailed through words like ‘grasseyement’, ‘imbirussu’, ‘caramoussal’, ‘bassanello’, ‘macclesfield’ and ‘callejon’, competing with an endearing humility that bordered on shyness.

At a press conference, Wednesday, the Bee’s communications manager Valerie Miller admitted, “The shy kids, introverts are definitely thrown into a very harsh spotlight and they do a great job in answering the best they can.” She added, “They get a chance to express themselves and hopefully become a role model for other kids who are watching.”

Rishik, a seventh grader at Chaboya Middle School, became the Bee’s sixth champion from the state of California when he aced ‘auslaut’ (final sound in a word or syllable). In a tireless, flawless performance spanning twenty rounds, he spelled a multitude of mind-boggling words like ‘anthocyanin’, ‘coryphee’, ‘chelydroid’, ‘fravashi’, ‘Tjaele’, ‘rhathymia’ and ‘murrain’.

Abhijay who finished third in the 2018 spelling bee confidently spelled ‘palama’ (webbing on the feet of aquatic birds) bagging the championship this time around. A sixth grader at McKamy Middle School, he nailed words such as ‘fonctionnaire’, ‘catilinarian’, ‘heideggerian’, ‘auftaktigkeit’, ‘passacaglia’, ‘badderlocks’, among others.

Sohum, in seventh grade at the St. Mark’s School of Texas, competed with an amazing agility. One of the quickest spellers, it appeared words like ‘paralipomena’, ‘tathagata’, ‘urfirnis’, ‘trachyte’, ‘allothimorph’ and ‘pendeloque’ (the winning word: a pear-shaped modification of the round brilliant cut used for diamonds and other gemstones) were on his fingertips. Interestingly, he is a self-taught origami (Japanese art of folding paper) expert and loves to travel having visited India, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Belize, Honduras and the Bahamas.

For Rohan, a seventh grader at Coppell Middle School West, the winning word was ‘odylic’ (a hypothetical vital energy or life force). A year earlier, he tied for tenth place in the Bee. By his own admission, he is a foodie who likes dishes which are extra spicy and the way to his heart is through ‘chicken biryani’, a mixed rice dish popular in the Indian subcontinent.

Erin, in eighth grade at Mountain Gap P-8 School, eagerly spelled ‘erysipelas’ (an acute disease caused by a bacterial infection) to emerge as a co-winner in her final qualifying Bee.

Originally, there were 565 spellers at the national level: 270 female (47.8 percent) and 295 male (52.2 percent), ranging in age from 7 to 15, with the majority being 12 to 14-year-olds. Due to compelling reasons, three students were unable to attend the competition.

Interestingly, last year’s spelling champ Karthik Nammani, 14, did not qualify for the finals via the traditional route: the regional spelling bee. Earlier, losing at the county level would have made him ineligible for the national competition. Not anymore.

Karthik was the beneficiary of a new invitational program, RSVBee, which allows more champion spellers to compete at the national level. The record number of spellers this year, at 562, is a result of the program. So, along with the 270 regional bee winners who secured expenses-paid trips to compete in the national finals, an additional 292 spellers were selected through RSVBee — those students who aced their school spelling bee or were a former national finalist attending a school which is enrolled in the Bee program.

“To welcome more spellers than ever to compete exemplifies the evolution of our program and the vast interest from families across the country,” Paige Kimble, executive director of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, said. “With RSVBee, we are leveling the playing field for national finals qualification and providing more opportunities for students to experience all the thrills, friendships and memories that come from the event.” She affirmed, “Bee Week is a special experience that challenges the mind and warms the heart.”

At the opening ceremony Monday, 2015 co-winner Vanya Shivashankar told the spellers, “You all should know that you have done your best. I’m here to tell you that you’ve made it.” She added, “You may find that the friendships you make at Bee Week are what matter most”

At an earlier press meet, we queried Kimble about the continued dominance of Indian American kids in the competition. “What we know about winning the Scripps National Spelling Bee is that the championship trophy will go to a speller who is dedicated,” someone who has been studying for several hours daily over 2-3 years, she replied. “So, winning the title is all about hard work. So, no matter where you come from, if you are standing on the stage tomorrow it is because you worked very hard.”

Kimble emphasized, “One of the things that we are so proud of and excited about is that so many Indian American children love the program, their families love it and support it. We would not be who we are without this. We are very grateful for them,” she said.

Following the 2019 edition, Indian American kids have won the spelling bee for all but four of the last twenty years.

Karthik aced last year’s competition when he correctly spelled ‘Koinonia’ (the Christian fellowship or body of believers) and was conferred the top prize of $40,000. Indian-origin kids made a clean sweep of the awards bagging the top six slots, and comprising nearly 70 percent of the finalists.

By correctly spelling ‘Marocain’ (a ribbed crepe fabric made of silk, wool or rayon), Ananya Vinay, 12, of California was crowned champion of the 2017 contest. Not only did she compete against another Indian American speller, Rohan Rajeev, 14, of Oklahoma, the majority (13 out of 15) of finalists were of Indian descent.

In the three preceding years, spellers tied for first place: Jairam Hathwar and Nihar Janga (2016); Vanya Shivashankar and Gokul Venkatachalam (2015); Sriram Hathwar (Jairam’s older brother) and Ansun Sujoe (2014).

All the winners emerged out of an original pool of millions of spellers, 11 million this year. The statistics are mind-boggling given the fact that Americans of Indian descent constitute barely one percent of the US population.

Of the 50 finalists who were competing in the national competition on Thursday morning, some 26 (over 50 percent) were of Indian origin. By afternoon, that number had dwindled to 16 spellers who were participating in the championship rounds, of which 11 (nearly 70 percent) were Indian American kids.

The 16 finalists were: Aisha Randhawa, 13, of California; Navneeth Murali, 13, of New Jersey; Nicholas D’Sa, 13, of California; Hephzibah Sujoe, 13, of Texas; Simone Kaplan, 13, of Florida; Alice Liu, 12, of Missouri; Yolanda Ni, 14, of Mississippi; Colette Giezentanner, 12, of Missouri; and the top eight winners.

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