Despite perfect spelling, Olathe’s Vanya Shivashankar fails to make national spelling bee finals

05/29/2014 1:59 PM

06/03/2014 10:17 AM

Perennial contender Vanya Shivashankar of Olathe aced all the words put to her onstage Thursday at the Scripps National Spelling Bee, but her score on a computer-based test left her out of the nighttime finals.

Vanya, a 12-year-old from California Trail Middle School, finished in a tie for fifth last year. This year, which marked her fourth trip to the national contest, she failed to make the top dozen in the competition.

She was among 19 semifinalists who did not make a single mistake and still failed to score high enough on the computer spelling and vocabulary test that weighed heavily toward their standings.

She will be eligible to return next year.

Her older sister, Kavya, was the national champ in 2009.

But times have changed in the few short years since the older Shivashankar took the prize. While some kids still traced letters on their palms as they spelled, others spread their hands over imaginary keyboards, typing out the characters.

And where once the dreaded judges’ bell indicated they had made a mistake, now the computerized test score can also thin the herd.

Vanya has been going to spelling bees since she was 4. The years of experience showed in her calm stage presence. She stood confidently in front of ESPN cameras televising to a national audience.

Asked to spell “elepidote,” she had some questions of her own.

“Does it come from the Greek word for lepid, meaning scale?” she asked the judges. “OK, and does it come from the Latin root ex, meaning out of?”

Her parents and sister in the audience looked as if they were trying to suppress a smile. The judges nodded admiringly. Vanya was fully prepared.

She also spelled “echinite,” a fossil sea urchin, before judges announced that the computer test had tossed her from the finals.

Considered among the favorites to win the championship this year, Vanya was featured prominently in ESPN promotional videos. She rode a bike for the camera, spelled the German word for “swimming” while underwater and had ice cream with her friends on the Country Club Plaza.

“Yeah, yeah, I know my sister is a champion. I was there, dude!” she tells a cartoon bee buzzing around the trophy in the video screened before the semifinals. “I’m working on it!”

Reaching the semifinals is no small feat. Out of 11 million kids competing in local spelling bees in schools and libraries, 281 made it to Washington. Out of the 46 semifinalists, 31 spelled each word correctly on stage.

Vanya was sponsored by The Olathe News, The Star’s sister publication.

In the spelling bee’s final competition Thursday night, two spellers were declared co-champions — the first time that’s happened for 52 years. The last co-champs were in 1962.

Sriram Hathwar of Painted Post, N.Y., and Ansun Sujoe of Fort Worth, Texas, shared the title Thursday after a riveting final-round duel in which they nearly exhausted the 25 designated championship words. After they spelled a dozen words correctly in a row, they both were named champions.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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