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Scripps Spelling Bee

The winning glory rested with 14-year-old Karthik Nemmani Nyasa Modi
14th Consecutive Win
for Indian-Americans in
Scripps Spelling Bee

The 91st Scripps National Spelling Bee was held May 31, which added 238 competitors for a total record breaking 515 contestants to the national tournament. The winning glory rested with 14-year-old Karthik Nemmani who astonishingly beat veteran competitor Nyasa Modi, thus winning the championship. The winning word was ‘koinonia,’ a word that of Greek origin that means “an intimate spiritual or Christian communion.”

The victory of the eighth grader was well deserved as he struggled to enter the competition. A wild card contestant, Nemmani did not win a county or regional spelling bee contest. He managed to enter the competition through a new program called RSVBee to prove his mettle. In order to give competitors from highly competitive regions a chance to enter the contest, the Wild Card entry was introduced. Spelling Bee spokesperson Valerie Millar said encouraging the RSVBee program “… (the RSVBee has) been great from the speller’s perspective. We see the program as a way to level the playing field.”

An Indian-American winning the Spelling Bee is hardly a surprise given that 19 out of 95 winners are of Indian origin. Winning the National Spelling Bee gives the Indian community a chance to proudly represent America. The watershed year was 1985 when Balu Natarajan became the first Indian-American to win the championship with the word “milieu.” Now a doctor, Natarajan is preparing his own son for the competition. Twelve-year-old Atman Balakrishnan has some huge shoes to fill! Dr. Natarajan says initially he wasn’t aware of how colossal his achievement was until recently when he realized his victory meant a lot for his community. The Indian-American community has been making a big deal of the competition since 2008. Dr. Natarajan recalls how competitors had to remember about 10,000 words, whereas now a winner must memorize 40,000 to 80,000 words.

Natarajan is a board member of non-profit organisation North South Foundation, which is known for hosting spelling competitions and preparing the ground for nearly all recent champions.

Natarajan, who holds high hopes for his community, said, “it’s become now a good cycle where certain Indian-Americans succeed and I think they have inspired others to do the same.” He feels rewarded if he plays a small part in preparing these kids.

Akash Vukoti took the internet by storm when he won his first championship at the age of 4. He entered his first spelling bee contest when he was two and became the youngest speller at the nationals in 2016 at the age of six. It explains how brilliant these children are and undoubtedly shows the hard work put in by them and their families. With the passage of time the competition has become tougher than previous years. Even the most accomplished spellers fear missing out a few vocabulary words. However, many of them are confident enough and hope to get through in upcoming competitions.


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