Indian-origin word whizzes make a clean sweep of awards at iconic competition
By Geeta Goindi
National Harbor, Maryland, May 31, 2018 – In one of the most enthralling and widely watched contests, an Indian-American teen, Karthik Nemmani, 14, of Texas, has been crowned champion of the 2018 Scripps National Spelling Bee. It’s a triumphant moment for the community — for eleven consecutive years, children of Indian origin have won the prestigious competition, a unique sporting event which tests their intellectual prowess, and they have made a clean sweep of awards at this year’s event bagging the top six slots.
The winning word was ‘Koinonia’ (communion with God or fellow Christians) for Karthik, an eighth grader at Scoggins Middle School in McKinney. He received a cash prize of $40,000 with the Bee’s engraved trophy, $2,500 and a complete reference library from Merriam-Webster, among other rewards.
Karthik faced off with Naysa Modi, 12, of Dallas, Texas, in an engrossing finale deftly moderated by Dr. Jacques Bailly, official pronouncer at the Bee for 16 consecutive years and a former champion (1980). Naysa, in seventh grade at Reynolds Middle School, was awarded 30,000 dollars for finishing second after misspelling ‘bewusstseinslage’ (a state of consciousness).
Karthik clinched the championship by nailing ‘haecceitas’, followed by the winning word. He was almost stoic-like in his demeanor on stage. If he was nervous, he didn’t show it. “I had confidence, but I didn’t think it would happen”, he said upon being declared the champion. “I’m really happy”, he added crediting spelling coach Grace Walters with helping him prepare for the Bee.
Karthik loves playing individual sports like spelling as he “doesn’t collaborate well”, he admits. Regarding his favorite word, it is ‘kummel’ due to its rather odd pronunciation.
Among the words he spelled correctly in the championship rounds were ‘jaguey’, ‘shamir’, ‘passus’, ‘grognard’, ‘ankyloglossia’, ‘cendre’, and ‘condottiere’.
Interestingly, Karthik did not qualify for the national finals via the traditional route: the regional spelling bee. Naysa won the county spelling bee, topping him, and then went on to win the regional contest. Earlier, losing at the county level would have made him ineligible for the national competition. Not now.
Karthik is 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 515, is a result of the program. So, along with the 278 regional bee winners, an additional 238 spellers were selected to compete in the finals — those who aced their school spelling bee or were a former national finalist attending a school which is enrolled in the Bee program. Of these, one boy was unable to attend the event held at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center just outside of Washington.
“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 added, “Bee Week is a special experience that challenges the mind and warms the heart”.
Naysa, a charismatic youngster, made her fourth appearance at the spelling bee. She aced words like ‘telyn’, ‘lophophytosis’, ‘videlicet’, ‘ochronosis’, ‘succiniferous’, ‘lochetic’, ‘pareidolia’ and ‘forcat’ which would boggle the minds of multitudes.
A budding stand-up comic, Naysa feels at home on stage. Last year, she discovered a love of Taekwondo, finding a number of commonalities between this Korean art of unarmed self-defense and spelling, most notably perseverance. At one point, she was the only girl left in the spelling bee squaring off with five boys, all Indian-Americans. And she held her own!
In third place was Abhijay Kodali, 11, of Texas awarded 20,000 dollars, followed by Jashun Paluru, 13, of Indiana in fourth place who bagged 10,000 dollars, Navneeth Murali, 12, of New Jersey in fifth place awarded 5,000 dollars, and Sravanth Malla, 14, of New York in sixth position who received 2,500 dollars.
At a press conference Wednesday, 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 2018 edition, Indian-American kids have won the spelling bee for all but four of the last nineteen years. 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 and awarded the top prize of $40,000. 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 origin.
In three preceding, consecutive years, the 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, over 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 41 finalists who were competing in the National Spelling Bee on Thursday morning, 22 or over 50 percent were of Indian descent. 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: Tara Singh, 13, of Kentucky; Anisha Rao, 12, Aisha Randhawa, 12, and Paul Hamrick, 14, of California; Shruthika Padhy, 12, of New Jersey; Rohan Raja, 12, of Texas; Enya Hubers, 12, of Ontario, Canada; Simone Kaplan, 12, of Florida; Erin Howard, 13, of Alabama; Phoebe Smith, 12, of Pennsylvania; and the top six winners.