Vanya Shivashankar was the youngest on the stage, and the smallest. But she battled as hard as the rest, finishing fifth in the 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee.
She hopes to be back next year, and finish better. In fact, nothing like winning it — her sister Kavya Shivashankar won the championship in 2009.
That would be a Bee record that many had expected in 2013.
She made it to last five, but was done in by a word she had never seen before: Zenaida, a type of pigeon. As walked off the stage, the hall erupted — she left a champion.
Arvind Mahankali went on to win, with a German word of Yiddish origin for dumpling — Knaidel — becoming the sixth Indian American to win the prestigious championship in a row.
In an interaction with reporters later, he was asked the inevitable question: Why Indian Americans? They are “hard working”, he said, matter-of-factly.
What else can explain it? Coincidence? “There is no coincidence about hard work,” said Paige Kimble, the executive director of the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
She should know, herself a Bee winner.
And so should Jacques Bailly, the Bee pronouncer who every contestant starts out by fearing and ends falling in love with. He thinks its hard work too.
Bailly is also a Bee winner, as Kimble.
They both told me in separate interviews that nothing but hard work and discipline could explain the amazing hold of the Indian-American community over the Bee.
Here are the last five winners: Sameer Mishra in 2008, Kavya Shivashankar in 2009, Anamika Veeramani in 2009, Sukayna Roy in 2011 and Snigdha Nandipati in 2012.
And now Arvind Mahankali.
Mahankali would get up at five in the morning over the weekends to work on his Bee preparations, his father Srinivas Mahankali told me, immediately after the championship.
Sure they work hard, and possibly harder than anyone else competing for the trophy. But there is also an entire galaxy of people working just as hard, if not harder, for them.
Specially a man called Ratnam Chetturi, who runs a non-profit organisation that prepares Desi kids for the Bee. Few people outside the Indian American community have heard of him.
And that’s by choice. Chetturi is obsessively low-profile — refused to send his picture for a story I wrote about him, and his organisation — North South Foundation, some time ago.
The NSF runs a parallel Bee, a countrywide contest culminating in a Bee-like finale, held away from home in an environment that simulates the high-octane original show.
The organisation holds weekly classes and regular contests, which, for one, drive the fear of the stage out of participating children from a very early age.
Don’t they always look so calm and confident on stage?
And, if you failed to notice, they know all the words. Most of them, at least. That comes from the exposure to hundreds and thousands of words that the NSF grants its children.
All six winners from Mishra in 2008 to Mahankali in 2013 are NSF alumnus. Here is a Facebook posting from NSF: “STOP PRESS: For the SIXTH time in a row, another NSF kid, Arvind Mahankali is crowned the Scripps National Spelling Bee Champion. Congratulations Arvind! We are proud of you.”
The father of a girl who came second in a previous Bee told me about driving her to NSF classes and contests over the weekends to distant towns and cities.
And that should bring us to parents. Driving their children to these classes and contests, equipping them with whatever they needed to stay ahead of the competition.
It can take a lot.
Parents of one of the 2013 finalists are both highly trained professionals. But the mother has decided to stay home to be able to help their child. They wish to remain unidentified.
Winning the Bee is indeed about hard work, by a lot of people.