Vanya Shivashankar (l) and Gokul Venkatachalam, co-winners of the 2015 Scripps National Spelling Bee. (Photo courtesy: National Spelling Bee)
Scripting history, two Indian American kids won the prestigious Scripps National Spelling Bee in a tie for the second time in a row, maintaining the community’s complete dominance on the competition, writes Lalit K. Jha.
Vanya Shivashankar, 13, and Gokul Venkatachalam, 14, were declared co-champions of the Scripps National Spelling Bee as they together lifted the golden trophy amid confetti and applause in a repeat of last year’s surprise tie – a feat achieved by Indian Americans for the second consecutive year.
The two winners will each receive over $37,000 in cash and prizes.
With this year’s success, young Indian-Americans have won as many as 14 of the past 18 contests and the eighth year in a row.
This is also the first time a sibling of a former champion won. The third spot was also bagged by an Indian American, Cole Shafer-Ray, from Oklahoma.
“This is a dream come true. I have wanted this for such a long time,” Shivashankar, the sister of 2009 champion Kavya Shivashankar, said while dedicating the award to her grandmother who passed away in October.
Appearing for the fifth and the final time for the contest, the eighth-grader from Kansas confidently spelled words as cytopoiesis, bouquetiere and thamakau before she was asked to tackle the golden word.
Basketball enthusiast Venkatachalam spelled words like poblacion, caudillismo and nixtamal before official bee pronouncer Jacques Bailly broke the news to him that Shivashankar had correctly spelled scherenschnitte, the German-derived word for artistic paper cutting.
Asked later what was on his mind when he heard the word “nunatak,” his winning word, he said: “Me and Vanya are going to be champions.”
Racist trolling was casting an ugly pall over social media as the reaction from some of the nearly one million people viewing the finals live posted biased views about the domination of non-Americans on the contest.
“One year I wish an American kid could win,” read a Twitter post.
“The kids in the spelling bee should only be AMERICAN,” a third tweet said.
Earlier, slamming the racist backlash against the winners of Indian origin, the bee’s longtime director Paige Kimble said their domination of the contest could be put down to their “perseverance.”
Indian Americans account for a little under 1 percent of the total U.S. population, but make up more than a fifth of the 285 spellers competing in the 88th edition of the bee. If recent trends hold, they would account for more than a third of the contest’s 50 semifinalists.
In 2014, Sriram Hathwar and Ansun Sujoe were declared the joint winners.
This year, 25 of the 49 finalists were Indian Americans. Of the last 10, seven were Indian Americans. A total 285 children were competing against each other, of whom 139 were boys while 146 were girls.
Shivashankar was the only contestant who was participating in the Bee for the fifth time. She previously competed in in 2010, 2012 (tied for 10th place), 2013 (tied for 5th place) and 2014 (tied for 13th place).
In his previous appearances, Venkatachalam tied for the 10th place in 2012 and bagged 19th place in 2013.
Coming to hobbies, Shivashankar plays tuba and piano besides acting and recently won the Mid America Music Association award for Exceptional Pianist and Jazz Pianist.
An eighth grader from St. Louis, Missouri, Venkatachalam said he had worked hard for the contest for the past several years and said he takes to spelling like his idol LeBron James does to basketball.
In addition to playing the sport, Venkatachalam is a fan of rap and alternative music, counting among his favorites Nas, Linkin Park and Macklemore.
When he is not listening to music, he likes to read – his top pick is Life of Pi – or watch his favorite movie, X-Men: Days of Future Past.
At school, Venkatachalam is drawn to mathematics and economics, and dreams of attending Stanford University and studying business so that he can become an entrepreneur or a stockbroker.
For several years now, Indian Americans have put up formidable challenges to their competitors and won most of the prestigious spelling awards here in the United States.