By Jason Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly
Any guess as to what the word means? More importantly, how do you spell it? For 14-year-old Gokul Venkatachalam of Chesterfield, Missouri it meant either sharing the glory of being the champion of the Scripps National Spelling Bee with 13-year -old Vanya Shivashankar of Olathe, Kansas or the unfortunate national recognition that he had failed to spell a word that many of us will never use in our lifetime.
Based on the somewhat-reliable internet source, Wikipedia, Nunatak is an “exposed, often rocky element of a ridge, mountain, or peak not covered with ice or snow within (or at the edge of) an ice field or glacier.”
Nunatak was the last word on the list of 11 championship words made to test the mettle of pre-teens that had studied for countless hours the correct spelling of most of the words in the dictionary.
Without flinching, Venkatachalam, looking down as if not to look out in the audience to engage in eye contact with his parents to heap more pressure on his already hunched shoulders, began to spell the word. “N-U-N-A-T-A-K” he said into the microphone with more confidence than it seemed from the previous words that he had to spell to get to the final word. “I just didn’t want to keep everyone waiting,” he told the Associated Press about the reason why he did not pause to query about the pronunciation or origin of the word as he had done with other words earlier in the competition.
The Scripps National Spelling Bee has grown into a national curiosity. The organizers and sports network ESPN have made the event into a “sport” of sorts as it airs the national finals on ESPN each June. Taking advantage of the lull between the NBA and NHL playoffs, the Scripps National Spelling Bee gets a prime time evening spot on Thursday. In the past, offshore gambling sites have had odds on potential winners. There was even a Broadway play written about the pressures and idiosyncrasies of a spelling bee. What makes a spelling bee so compelling? Almost one million people tuned in to ESPN this year to watch Venkatachalam and Shivashankar engage in the final round. Surely, they could not have confused this with a baseball game. Although some might argue that both produce the same excitement level.
The “sport” is dominated by Indian Americans. Past champions have included many child prodigies from India including the co-champions this year. 12 of the last 16 Scripps National Spelling Bee winners have roots in South Asia. Shivashankar may have had added pressure to winning as her sister was the 2009 Scripps National Spelling Bee Champion.
Shivashankar appeared to struggle with the word “zimocca.” She questioned the judge as to the origin of the word and whether there were alternative pronunciations. She mimicked having a piece of paper with one hand and a pen in the other as she wrote out the word as a method of recall to guide her through the process of spelling it. She was successful. Zimocca is a sponge of the Adriatic sea which is used as a bath sponge.
For these spelling masters, the championship is the culmination of many hours of study over the course of months and years. There is also the added pressure that the event is now a now unique television event. With the lights, cameras, and audience watching, spelling in front of everyone is much more daunting than a spelling bee contest amongst your peers in a classroom.
“This is a dream come true,” said Shivashankar, ”I’ve wanted this for such a long time,” said the 14-year-old. Of course, a “long time” is relative for a teenager with the rest of their life ahead of them. She dedicated her win to her grandmother that had passed away.
“I’m finally happy to have success,” Venkatachalam said after the contest. Certainly, he will have many more successes down the road.
For their efforts, both winners this year will earn more than $30,000 in prizes from sponsors of the contest which include Scripps, Words with Friends, Merriam-Webster and Encyclopedia Britannica.
Not to criticize the prizes but haven’t the winners already mastered most of these prizes?
Shouldn’t they receive money toward college or perhaps a down payment on their first car?
These type of prizes would certainly get many more kids willing to put in time to spelling.
In a world where we have autocorrect on our computers and text using a variety of acronyms that are hard to decipher as well as purposefully misspelling words to make the 140 character limit, it is nice to see that the art of spelling words correctly is still practiced. (end)
Jason Cruz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.