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Indian American girl wins Spelling Bee

By Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC
Last updated on: May 29, 2009 09:54 IST
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In her fourth appearance at the annual spelling marathon, a supremely-confident Kavya Shivashankar, 13, of Olathe, Kansas, breezed through to win the 82nd Scripps National Spelling Bee competition, after going toe-to-to with her pre-school friend Aishwarya Pastapur, 13, of Chatham, Illinois and Tim Ruitter of Centreville, Virginia.

At the end of Round 9 of the championship finals, which was telecast live by ABS at prime time, it was just Shivashankar, Pastapur and Ruitter.

Pastapur misspelled 'menhir' as 'mynheer' and Ruitter got 'maecenas' wrong, misspelling it as 'mycenas'. Shivashankar got 'phoresy' right, with a broad smile.

She then returned alone for Round 10, and correctly spelt 'laodicean', which means lukewarm in religion or politics, and won the title, after finishing among the top 10 in the last three years, including tying for the fourth place last year.

Earlier, the other favourite, Sidharth Chand, 13, of Beverly Hills, Michigan, who finished second last year and was tipped to capture the title along with Shivashankar, came a cropper in Round 2 of the finals, when he misspelled 'apodyterium' as 'apodeiterium' and even as he was being given a standing ovation, ran into the arms of his parents, clearly devastated and then sat down, buried his head in his hands and began to quietly sob.

Also, in this round, Neetu Chandak, also was felled by the word 'derriengue' missing out on the 'r' and misspelling it as 'deriengue.'

In Round 1 of the finals, which had seven Indian American kids, among the 11 championship finalists, Tussah Heera was the first Indian American casualty, misspelling 'herniorrhaphy' as 'herniorhaphy.'

Ramya Aurprem and Anamika Veeramani were felled in Round 5, misspelling 'amarevole' and 'fackeltanz' as 'amarevile' and facultaans' respectively.

But Shivashankar and Pastapur kept going merrily along, till Round 9 when 'menhir' proved to be Pastapur's waterloo.

With Ruitter also misspelling 'maecenas' while Shivashankar had correctly spelled 'phoresy' the latter who appeared by herself had to correctly spell 'laodicean' if she were to preclude Ruitter from coming back into the reckoning, but she slam-dunked this word to take the title.

She was immediately hugged by her parents, and then with tears of joy streaming down her face, received the massive engraved Scripps trophy from Rich Boene, chairman and CEO of Scripps.

Besides the trophy, Shivashankar's prizes included a $30,000 cash prize from Scripps, a $2,500 US Savings bond and a complete reference library from Merriam Webster, a $5,000 scholarship from Sigma Phi Epsilon Educational Foundation, and a $2,800 in reference works and the Britannica Test Prep Precocious Program valued at $799 from Encyclopedia Britannica.

Shivashankar, an 8th grader at California Trail Junior High School in Olathe, who became the first student from Kansas to win the title in the history of the 82-year-old competition, said her role model and inspiration for her spelling career was Nupur Lala, who won the title in 1999.

She plans to become a neurosurgeon, but for the time being, when she is not consumed by practicing spelling -- coached by her father -- she enjoys playing the violin, cycling, swimming and learning Indian classical dance.

Pastapur, also an eighth grader from Glenwood Middle School in Springfield, Illinois, by virtue of her third place, won a $7,500 cash prize and also, as did all the other 11 championship finalists, the 51-volume Britannica from Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Britannica Discover America and the 2008 Encyclopaedia Britannica Student Edition DVD.

Earlier, if ever there was any doubt that during the past few years, Indian American kids have come to virtually own the annual Spelling Bee competition, it was erased with a vengeance when of the 11 championship finalists, seven or more than 60 per cent were Indian Americans, belonging to a minority population that is less than one percent of the total US population.

The day started with 41 spellers in the semi-finals, of which 14 were Indian Americans, and when the fourth and final semi-final round was completed, the Indian American dominance was amply manifest with seven spellers surviving to make their bid in the finals telecast at prime time by ABC with Tom Bergeron, the host of Dancing With the Stars, hosting this dance with words.

Shivashankar's victory also made for history to repeat itself and ensure a third back-to-back taking of the championship by an Indian American, after Sameer Mishra became last year's top speller.

Way back in 1985, Balu Natarajan, today a physician specialising in sports medicine, was the first Indian American to win the title, and thereafter including last year's winner Mishra, eight Indian Americans have won the championship. Among them, back-to-back title winners were Nupur Lala and George Abraham Thampy in 1999 and 2000 respectively and Pratyush Buddiga and Sai R Gunturi in 2002 and 2003 respectively. Other winners were Ragashree Ramachandran in 1988 and Anurag Kashyap in 2005.

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Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC