WILD-CARD WIN. Karthik Nemmani, 14, from McKinney, Texas,
left, is given his trophy after winning the Scripps National
Spelling Bee, by president and CEO of the E.W. Scripps Company,
Adam Symson, right, as confetti falls in Oxon Hill, Maryland.
(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
From The Asian Reporter, V28, #12 (June 18, 2018),
pages 11 & 16.
Dallas duel: Wild card turns tables at
National Spelling Bee
By Ben Nuckols
The Associated Press
OXON HILL, Md. — The end of the biggest Scripps National
Spelling Bee in history came abruptly, and it wasn’t the
conclusion that many expected. Naysa Modi, a poised and
charismatic four-time participant whose long spelling career
seemed to be building toward triumph, sat next to a newcomer
whom she had already beaten this year — at the county level.
But 12-year-old Naysa blinked 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 that he wouldn’t have had before this year.
"I didn’t really think I’d be able to do it," the soft-spoken
winner said. "I had confidence that I could do it, but I
honestly didn’t realistically think it could happen."
Karthik’s victory put the spotlight back onto the story of
this bee — the new wild-card program that Scripps launched to
give a chance to spellers like him, who have to compete against
some of the nation’s best spellers at the local level. The field
was expanded to 515 spellers to accommodate the wild cards —
there had never been more than 300 competitors previously — and
four of the 16 prime-time finalists got in through the new
program, known as "RSVBee."
When only three spellers 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 he could go to a school that takes part in the
Scripps program. Naysa is from Frisco, less than 15 miles to the
west. And third-place finisher Abhijay Kodali lives in Flower
Mound, another 40 miles west.
Naysa knocked off Abhijay in the Dallas regional bee after
topping Karthik in their county bee. The region is one of a few
that sponsors two spellers for a trip to nationals. The wild
cards had to pay their own way — a $750 entry fee plus the costs
of travel to Washington and lodging.
"I don’t care," said Karthik’s father, Krishna Nemmani. "I
know his caliber."
Like many top spellers, Karthik was a precocious preschooler
— he arranged block letters to spell "horse" at age three and
won his first spelling bee at four-and-a-half years old, his dad
His winning word was "koinonia," which means Christian
fellowship or communion. He knew that one. He also knew the word
Naysa missed. But he didn’t pretend to be infallible, saying
there were about eight or nine words in the prime-time finals he
didn’t know — a rare admission for a champion.
"She’s a really, really good speller. She 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 win was also a triumph for the burgeoning industry of
spelling coaches — high-schoolers who’ve aged out of competition
but share their wisdom with younger competitors, for a steep
fee. He thanked his coach, 16-year-old Grace Walters, who had
her own star-crossed history of never quite getting to the
Karthik also used study materials compiled by two
well-regarded former Scripps spellers and fellow Texans, Shobha
Dasari and her younger brother, Shourav, who finished fourth
last year and won nearly every other bee he competed in. Six of
the 16 top finishers, including Naysa, studied the Dasaris’
hand-picked lists of more than 100,000 words.
"It definitely makes us feel great," 17-year-old Shobha said.
Naysa, who participates in taekwondo and performs stand-up
comedy, will have to regroup after a bitter defeat and try again
next year. She’ll be in eighth grade, which is the final school
year that spellers are eligible. She first competed in the bee
as a cherubic nine-year-old.
After her defeat, she was swarmed by dozens of current and
former spellers who wished her well, smiling throughout.
"She was just as graceful as she could be," bee program
manager Corrie Loeffler said.
Her close friend, Jashun Paluru of West Lafayette, Indiana,
finished fourth, spelling with flair and spending most of his
time in between words chatting animatedly with Naysa.
Karthik, for his part, took no pleasure in vanquishing a
"I wouldn’t say it was revenge," he said. "We weren’t against
each other. We were against the dictionary."