By Lauren Sausser
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Shantanu Srivatsa and Anamika Veeramani sat nervously, side by side on stage.
Once again, an Indian-American was going to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee. It was just a matter of what word and what time on June 4.
Shantanu, 13, an eighth-grader from West Fargo, N.D., stepped to the microphone first and couldn’t spell “ochidore.”
Anamika — showing the cool demeanor she kept throughout — kept her hands behind her back and rattled off the correct letters for the medical term “stromuhr.” She didn’t crack a smile until the trophy was presented.
“It was too surreal,” she said. “It was an amazing experience. I usually have a poker face, so that’s what that was.”
The 14-year-old girl from North Royalton, Ohio, won the 83rd bee, claiming the trophy and more than $40,000 in cash and prizes — some of which she says she intends to spend.
She also became the third consecutive Indian American bee champion.
Indian Americans comprise less than 1 percent of the U.S. population according to 2000 census data, but they have an impressive bee winning streak — taking the trophy in eight of the past 12 years.
“All of the past champions inspire me, they all have something different and they’re all amazing people,“ Anamika said after the prime-time finals on June 4.
She survived the round by spelling “juvia” — a Brazil nut — and then had to sit through a tense 3 1/2-minute commercial before spelling the championship word.
“It was just really nerve-racking,” Anamika said. “The commercial breaks didn’t really help.”
The finals were preceded by an unpopular move that had some spellers and parents claiming the bee was unfair and had kowtowed too much to television.
Concerned that there wouldn’t be enough spellers left to fill the two-hour slot on ABC, organizers stopped the semifinals in the middle of a round Friday afternoon — and declared that the 10 spellers onstage would advance to the prime-time broadcast, including six who didn’t have to spell a word in the interrupted round.
Essentially, the alphabetical order of the U.S. states helped determine which spellers got to move on the marquee event.
It’s one of the pitfalls of the growing popularity of the bee, which has to yield to the constraints of its television partners. There were 19 spellers left at the start of the round, which was too many for prime-time. But when the round turned out to be brutal — nine of the first 13 misspelled — ABC was on the verge of having too few.
“I don’t feel bad at all for giving these children the opportunity,” bee director Paige Kimble said. “Do I wish we could give it to 19? Yes, certainly, but that’s not practical in a two-hour broadcast window. We know it’s unpopular and we don’t like to do it, but sometimes you can get into a position where that’s exactly what you have to do.”
The Indian American winning streak began with Nupur Lala, a 2007 graduate of the University of Michigan, who became famous for her 1999 win after the 2002 release of the Academy Award-nominated documentary “Spellbound.”
By then, George Abraham Thampy had won in 2000. Pratyush Buddiga took the title two years later. The streak continued through the decade: Sai Gunturi won in 2003, Anurag Kashyap in 2005, Sameer Mishra in 2008 and Kavya Shivashankar in 2009. Kavya, now 14, returned this year to watch her sister Vanya, 8, compete in her first national bee. She was eliminated before the televised semifinals.
After Kavya congratulated Anamika onstage, she said winning the bee has less to do with nationality and more to do with a passion for words.
“I can’t really speak for other people, but, for me, it was just enjoying spelling,” Kavya said.
Kavya’s father, Mirle Shivashankar, was hesitant to draw any firm conclusions, but pointed out the chain of events can lead to one speller inspiring the next.
“Kavya’s role model was Nupur Lala,” Mirle Shivashankar said. “And now there are a lot of girls who look up to Kavya.”
Anamika’s father, Alagaiya Veeramani, a civil engineer, said he had no clue why Indian Americans seem to do so well at the competition. He guessed it has something to do with a hard-work ethic.
“This has been her dream for a very, very long time. It’s been a family dream, too,” said Veeramani, explaining that his daughter studied as many as 16 hours on some days. “I think it has to do with an emphasis on education.”
Anamika has yet to start high school, but already envisions attending Harvard University and becoming a cardiovascular surgeon. She also wants to spend more time golfing, dancing and writing.
All of which, she’ll now have time to do. Spelling, at least competitively, is over for this eighth grader.
Students are not eligible once they win the national competition.
“I’ve been doing spelling for such a long time. After eighth grade, there are no more spelling opportunities. It’s kind of sad,” she said. ♦
Associated Press Writer Joseph White contributed to this report.