Indian-American Girl Ananya Vinay Crowned Champion of National Spelling Bee

Indian-origin children have won the iconic competition for ten consecutive years

By Geeta Goindi

National Harbor, Maryland, June 1, 2017 – In one of the most riveting contests, a young Indian-American girl, Ananya Vinay, 12, of California, has been crowned champion of the 2017 Scripps National Spelling Bee. It’s a historic triumph: for ten consecutive years, children of Indian origin have won the prestigious competition.

The winning word was ‘Marocain’ (a ribbed crepe fabric made of silk, wool or rayon) for Ananya, a sixth grader at Fugman Elementary School in Fresno. She received a cash prize of $40,000 and the Bee’s engraved trophy.

“By correctly spelling the word ‘marocain’, earlier this week, California’s own Ananya Vinay became the champion of the 90th Scripps National Spelling Bee. Congratulations Ananya”, said Democratic Senator Kamala Harris, the first ever Indian-American elected to the upper chamber of the US Congress.

Ananya faced off with Rohan Rajeev, 14, of Edmond, Oklahoma, in a grueling, engrossing finale – “one of the greatest duals in the Scripps Bee 90-year history”, Dr. Jacques Bailly, official pronouncer at the Bee for 15 years and a former champion (1980), declared. “Both of these spellers have proven they have the ability to win”.

If she was nervous, Ananya didn’t show it. “I just focused on my word and tried to spell it right”, she said, following her fascinating 35-round win. “It’s like a dream come true”, she gushed. “I’m so happy right now”.

Rohan, in eighth grade at Oklahoma Christian School, was awarded 30,000 dollars for finishing second. He dedicated his Bee to his sister back home in Oklahoma. Congratulating the Edmond native, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, enthused, “Well done, Rohan! You make Oklahoma proud!”.

About competing against Rohan, a formidable contestant and spelling specialist in his own right, Ananya said, “It was interesting to go back and forth for so many rounds”. Her favorite word to spell is ‘spizzerinctum’ which means ‘the will to succeed’.

Among the many words she spelled correctly in the championship rounds were ‘Hypapante’, ‘Gifblaar’, ‘Wayzgoose’, ‘Tchefuncte’, ‘Staatenbund’, ‘Pykrete’, ‘Berghaan’, ‘Gwyniad’, and ‘Sceloporus’. Rohan aced ‘Poulaine’, ‘Cheiropompholyx’, ‘Potichimanie’, ‘Chitarrino’, ‘Koleroga’, ‘Juglar’, ‘Durchkomponiert’, ‘Brabancon’, and many other words which would boggle the minds of multitudes.

The Scripps Bee is now in its 90th year and more popular than ever!

A total of 291 word whizzes, over 24 percent of Indian descent, headed to the Gaylord Resort and Convention Center at the scenic National Harbor which has served as the venue of the competition for seven years now. It was the largest number of spellers in the Bee’s history. The contestants – 153 boys and 138 girls, ranging in age from 6 to 15 years — emerged from an original pool of 11 million spellers who competed in regional contests held across the country and abroad.

Of the 40 finalists who were competing in the National Spelling Bee on Thursday morning, 25 or over 60 percent were of Indian descent. By afternoon, that number had dwindled to 15 spellers for the national championship rounds, of which the majority, 13, were Indian-American kids. These staggering figures together with cash prizes for the top six ranging from 2,500 dollars to the grand prize of 40,000 dollars, made it virtually a contest between children of Indian origin.

In third place was Mira Dedhia of Illinois awarded 20,000 dollars, followed by Shourav Dasari of Texas in fourth place who bagged 10,000 dollars, Raksheet Kota of Texas in fifth place awarded 5,000 dollars, and Tejas Muthusamy of Virginia in sixth position who received 2,500 dollars.

Following the 2017 edition of the National Spelling Bee, Indian-American kids have now won the acclaimed competition for all but four of the last eighteen years. The previous three years have seen the winners in a tie: Jairam Hathwar and Nihar Janga (2016); Vanya Shivashankar and Gokul Venkatachalam (2015); Sriram Hathwar (Jairam’s older brother) and Ansun Sujoe (2014).

These statistics are mind-boggling given the fact that Americans of Indian descent constitute barely one percent of the US population.

An elated family — 2017 National Spelling Bee Champion Ananya Vinay, 12, of California, with her parents and younger brother following her well-deserved win. Photo credit: Mark Bowen / Scripps National Spelling Bee

At a press conference on Wednesday, Paige Kimble, executive director of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, addressed queries about the children of recent immigrants excelling at the competition. “What we see, a common thread among children who are first generation, second generation Americans, in their homes, is an intense focus on educational achievement”, she told journalists. “They see this as a recognition opportunity, a great opportunity, and they pursue it”.

Citing a statistic released by the British Council, Kimble noted that by 2020, it is expected that there will be two billion English language learners or speakers worldwide, and only about 350 million of those will be in the United States. “So, there are a lot of people all over the world, many more than in the United States, playing with the English language as they learn it and as they speak it”, she said. “One of the oldest, most familiar games that you can play as an English language speaker is spelling and spelling bees. I think it is natural that as people everywhere learn the language, they play with the game of spelling. It’s just so accessible for them”.

Responding to a question about the ability and caliber of the spellers, Dr. Bailly admitted, “We are constantly surprised. It’s obvious they are amazing. They are getting better and better”, he said, likening the Bee to the Olympics which keeps drawing a wider audience and attracts finer competitors. Interestingly, the Scripps Bee is called the Olympics of Spelling.

Ananya’s profile on the Bee’s web-site reveals that she would like to be a doctor, scientist or a writer. She likes to volunteer because she likes to help people. Compassion with intellect is an endearing combination!

The Scripps National Spelling Bee is open to students, no older than 15, in all 50 US states and its Territories, the District of Columbia, Department of Defense Schools in Europe, as well as youths in Canada, Mexico, China, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, among other countries. Participants do not have to be US citizens, but they must be regional spelling bee winners.

The purpose of the Bee “is to help students improve their spelling, increase their vocabularies, learn concepts and develop correct English usage that will help them all their lives”.

In the 90th edition of the iconic competition, Edith Fuller of Oklahoma garnered a lot of attention as a six-year-old adept speller competing against kids almost three times her age. Edith was only five when she qualified as a national finalist in March making her the youngest contestant ever since the Bee began in 1925. The majority of participants were 12 to 14 years old, with boys at 53 percent outnumbering the girls.

Overall, 126 spellers spoke or studied 38 languages other than English, including Bengali, Hindi, Malayalam, and Urdu.

The 15 finalists were: Rohan Sachdev of North Carolina; Shrinidhi Gopal of California; Sreeniketh Vogoti of Florida; Saketh Sundar of Maryland; Naysa Modi of Louisiana; Alex Iyer of Texas; Shruthika Padhy of New Jersey; Erin Howard of Alabama; Alice Liu of Missouri; Tejas, Raksheet, Shourav, Mira, Rohan Rajeev, and Ananya.

The 15 finalists of the 2017 edition of the National Spelling Bee included 13 contestants of Indian origin. Photo credit: Mark Bowen / Scripps National Spelling Bee

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