OXON HILL, Md. – The end of the largest of the Scripps National Spelling Bee in the history came abruptly, and it was not the conclusion that many of expected. Naysa Modi, a poised and charismatic four-time participant of whom the long spelling career seemed to build up in the direction of triumph, sat next to a newcomer who they had already beaten this year at the provincial level.
But the 12-year-old Naysa blinked with his eyes immediately, mixing up the single and double “s” in the German-derived word “Bewusstseinslage” — a state of consciousness, or a feeling devoid of sensory components — and 14-year-old Karthik Nemmani seized an opportunity he would not have had for this year.
“I didn’t really know that I would be able to do it,” the soft-spoken winner said. “I had confidence that I could do it, but I would honestly not realistic to think that it could happen.”
Karthik the victory of Thursday night the attention back on the story of the bee week — the new wild card program that Scripps launched to give a chance to players such as he, who have to compete against some of the nation’s best spellers at the local level. The area was extended to 515 players to the wild cards — there was never more than 300 competitors previously and four of the 16 prime-time finalists received by the new program, known as “RSVBee.”
When only three players remained, all were from the Dallas area, which has long been a hotbed of spelling talent.
Karthik is from McKinney, Texas his family moved there specifically so that he could go to a school that participates in the Scripps program. Naysa is of Frisco, less than 15 km to the west. And the third place finisher Abhijay Kodali lives in Flower Mound, 40 km to the west.
Naysa chopped of Abhijay in the Dallas regional bee after topping Karthik in their county bee. The region is one of the few that sponsors two players for a trip to the nationals. The wild cards had to pay their own way — a $750 registration fee, plus the cost of travel to Washington and lodging.
“I don’t care,” said Karthik is the father of Krishna Nemmani. “I know of his calibre.”
Like many top players, Karthik was a precocious toddler, he arranged capital letters to spell “horse” at the age of 3 and won his first spelling bee on 4½, his father said.
His winning word was “koinonia”, which means the Christian community. He knew that. He also knew that the word Naysa missed. But he could not pretend to be infallible, saying there were about eight or nine words in the prime-time finals, he did not know — a rare admission for a champion.
“She is a really, really good speller. They deserved the trophy as much as I did,” Karthik said of Naysa. “I got lucky.”
Karthik is the 14th consecutive Indian-American champion, and 19 of the past 23 winners have had Indian heritage. He takes home more than $ 42,000 in cash and prizes.
His victory was also a triumph for the growing industry of the spelling coaches — high-school students who have in the age of competition, but to share their wisdom with the younger competitors, for a hefty fee. He thanked his coach, the 16-year-old Grace Walters, who had her own star-crossed history of never all the way to the Scripps stage.
Karthik also used written material composed by two well-regarded former Scripps players and fellow Texans, Shobha Dasari and her younger brother, Shourav, who finished fourth last year and won almost every other bee he is involved in. Six of the 16 best players, including Naysa, studied the Dasaris’ hand-picked lists of more than 100,000 words.
“It definitely makes us feel good,” 17-year-old Shobha said.
Naysa, who does taekwondo and performs stand-up comedy, will have to regroup after a bitter defeat and try again next year. They will be in the eighth grade, that is the last year that players are eligible. They participate for the first time in the bees as a cherubic 9 year old.
After her defeat, she was swarmed by dozens of current and former players who wished her, smiling.
“She was just so graceful as they could be,” bee program manager Corrie Loeffler said.
Her good friend, Jashun Paluru, West Lafayette, Indiana, finished fourth, spelling with flair, and spending most of his time in between the words chatting animatedly with Naysa.
Karthik, for his part, took no pleasure in the overcoming of a known enemy.
“I would not say that it was revenge,” he said. “We were not against each other. We were up against the dictionary.”
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