Son of National Spelling Bee champ hopes to make history

OXON HILL, Md. – The domination of the Scripps National Spelling Bee Indian-Americans has gone on long enough that a second generation is created.

Last year, Mira Dedhia, whose mother competed in the bee three times, finished third. This year, the first child of a former champion to compete.

Dr. Balu Natarajan, a physician of Hinsdale, Illinois, won in 1985 by the spelling of “environment”, a word that will almost certainly not be used outside of the qualifying rounds of today. His 12-year-old son, Atman Balakrishnan, is making his debut this year, and his ultimate goal is to equal his father’s accomplishment.

No pressure, though.

“He helps me and try me to work harder, because he knows that I want this,” Atman said. “If he knew that I would not, he would not press me.”

The bee began Tuesday with 516 players, by far the most in history. The expanded field means three days full of spelling instead of two. The 50 or so players that the final will be announced Wednesday, then compete on Thursday until a champion is crowned. As usual, most of the supposed favorites are Indian-American.

Natarajan was the first Indian-American to win. Another followed in 1988. Eighteen of the last 22 champions are Indian-American, including three years when there were co-champions.

Natarajan is on the board of directors of the North-South Foundation, a non-profit organization that hosts the national competitions in spelling and other subjects, and has served as a training ground for almost all of the recent champions. That is just one of the reasons among many for the success of the Indian-Americans.

“It is now a kind of a good cycle where certain Indian-Americans to succeed, and I think that they have to inspire others to do the same,” Natarajan said. “I have no idea what my role is in that, if appropriate.”

This year is the honey bee has 516 players, approximately a fourfold increase compared to Natarajan, the first bee. That is not the only thing that has changed.

“The word bank of the most of the players or many of the players has just gone up dramatically,” he said. “I think that you can win the spelling bee back by it know of perhaps 10,000 words, and now the children who win have to know that somewhere between 40 and 80,000 words.”

Here are some other things to know about Tuesday, the first day of the spelling:


The bee starts with a written spelling and vocabulary test. It is the largest factor in the determination of the approximately 50 players who advance to Thursday’s finals, and the consensus was that it was very difficult.

The field of players has expanded to more than 200 this year, as Scripps began with a wild-card program to provide opportunities to more children from highly competitive regions. As a result, Scripps had to craft a test that would separate it from the most experienced and prepared players.

“They made it hard on purpose,” said Jacob Williamson, a former player and a student at the University of Georgetown who is coaching five players this year.

The moments after the test are some of the most nerve-wracking for players, which is spilling into the halls outside the bee stage and frantically Google the answers.

“The vocab was a little hard this year,” said the 11-year-old Ashrita Gandhari, which last year was the final. “It was definitely harder than last year.”

Even some of the most talented players said they missed a few of the vocabulary words, but they were still pretty sure, they would be through to the finals.

“It was fine, actually. I didn’t expect it to be good,” said the 13-year-old Erin Howard of Huntsville, Alabama, who finished seventh last year. “I think that in the worst case I’ve missed five.”


Old bee pronouncer Jacques Bailly, revered by players for his gentle manner and meticulous accuracy, had a rare slip-up.

Thirteen-year-old Tara Singh of Louisville, Kentucky, received the “Diplodocus”, a huge herbivorous dinosaur, and when she asked Bailly for the language of origin, ” he said, “dioecious is made of Greek elements,” the use of the word that the previous player had missed.

“Eh, what was my word?” Tara asked.


Players know which questions they can ask Bailly and expect to get useful information in the response. That does not stop some from trying to get more.

“Can you, like, repeat it slowly?” asked Annie Huang of Surrey, British Columbia, Canada, when she “menehune,” a Hawaiian-derived word for a mythological, forest-dwelling dwarves.

“There Is, as a root word or something?” she asked, only to be reminded that players have to ask for a specific head and to define which information to receive.

Annie gave it another shot before she misspelled the word.

“Is the spelling, as, the counter-intuitive in what way?”

“That depends on your intuition,” Bailly replied.


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