WASHINGTON – the fans watching on ESPN, Nihar Janga ‘ s victory last year in the Scripps National Spelling Bee was a shock: He was only 11 years old, a fifth grader in the bee for the first time against each other on the 8th graders with a low voice and facial hair.
The close-knit community of players and ex-players who follow performances in the run-up to the bee, Nihar was something else: a seasoned competitor with an impressive resume and a threat to win it all.
As the bees has become increasingly difficult, players have less chance to come out of nowhere and hoisting the trophy. There is more information available about children in the bee, and the champion players have more and more the fit of a familiar profile. For them, the bee is a time-consuming, year-round pursuit.
“There is certainly a defined set of favorites, and if you have more well-known spelling bees to compete in, you have more barometers of how well people are going to do,” said Mitchell Robson, 15, who finished 7th in the final year of the. “There is usually one or two people that you see come from nothing each year, but it is very hard to get more than that. … Last year, Nihar Janga certainly not come out of nowhere.”
Nihar was considered a dangerous player since the previous summer, he had finished in second place in the North-South Foundation spelling bee. The non-profit foundation hosts national competitions for Indian-Americans in a variety of academic fields. The last 10 National spelling bee winners have participated in the foundation of the spelling bee, and 17 of the last 21 champions are Indian-American. Also, three of the nine children who have won the South Asian Spelling Bee have gone on to win the Scripps bee.
The last dark horse to win was Ansun Sujoe, co-champion in 2014, the first of three consecutive years in which the bee ended in a tie. His results in the North-South Foundation were not impressive, and he did not get past the preliminaries in prior National Spelling Bee appearance.
Two years ago, Vanya Shivashankar and Gokul Venkatachalam easily withstood the pressure of the label co-favorites, and shared the title. And last year, Nihar was co-champion with Apart Hathwar, a polished player whose older brother shared the title with Ansun in 2014.
Things were different a generation ago, before the internet and for the creation of the North-South Foundation and South Asian bees. Lekshmi Nair, who participated in the bees from 1988-1990, she said, and she showed up knowing nothing about her fellow players.
“There was no leadership or anything like that. Really, it was anyone’s guess what could happen,” said Nair, whose 13-year-old daughter, Mira Dedhia, is making its second appearance in the bee this year. “My last year there was a girl, it was her first time in the nationals. No one had heard of her before. That was perhaps a time when it was more like everyone in the game.”
Now, ex-players who remain in the vicinity of the bee swap lists of favorites and to take part in fantasy leagues. They share the news about the words that are used in the regional bees, and to pay attention to parts of the country, which is known to be competitive, such as Florida, California, New York and Texas. Some work as pronouncers or beer judges, with the attendance of the minor-league bees as fans or view them on the livestreams.
This year is the honey bee, which starts on Tuesday, three players are consensus favorites: Shourav Dasari, a history of North-South Foundation and the South Asian Spelling Bee champion, whose older sister came close several times; Siyona Mishra, who last year won the South-Asian honey bee and finished 9th in her only the National spelling bee appearance; and Tejas Muthusamy, who is working on his fourth appearance with the two previous top-10 finishes.
Even as one of the favorites to ultimately win, the bee still has plenty of surprises. Last year, Shourav was also highly touted, but he misspelled a word and fell just before the prime-time finals.
“In almost every beer there is a child or a handful of children that there is a lot of talk is about because they have done and earlier,” said Paige Kimble, the bee’s director. “And almost every beer there is a shock moment that comes when those children who were the subject of a lot chatter on the word that they don’t know.”
Siyona said in an interview that she did not feel any extra pressure to be considered a favorite. But she knows that her experience is an advantage.
“icipating in the South Asian Spelling Bee helps you prepare for spelling on stage and figuring out words you’ve never seen it,” Siyona said.
No matter how much success they have had, in anticipation of the bee, the elite players also have a single-minded commitment, which in the thousands of hours of practice is necessary in order to be able to spell hundreds of thousands of words. Not all of the 291 players in the dedicated.
Nair is quizzing her daughter, Mira, at least 2 hours per night, and more in the weekend, since last year’s bee. Mira fell flat for the promotion of the preliminaries of the past year and wants to improve. She goes all-out because she is in 8th grade and it is her last year of eligibility.
“It would be very difficult to do for three, four years in a row. I would have a hard time with that,” said Nair, a radiologist, who also has a 2-year-old daughter. “It is very tiring.”
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