On her fifth and final try at the national spelling championship, Vanya Shivashankar of Olathe finally won the title.
She became the first sibling of a past champion to win; her sister, Kavya, won in 2009.
“This is a dream come true, I can’t believe I’m up here. I’ve wanted this for such a long time. I’m dedicating this (win) to my grandma because she passed away in October of 2013, and all she really wanted was her grandkids to do so well. And I hope I make her happy with this.”
But in a twist of fate, Vanya wound up sharing her title with a speller from eastern Missouri — Gokul Venkatachalam of Chesterfield, who was declared co-champion. Gokul finished third last year.
The championship round of the Scripps National Spelling Bee began with 10 competitors for the top honor, but it soon was winnowed to a lengthy battle between the two final competitors.
Vanya’s final word was “scherenschnitte.” After being informed he’d be the co-champion if he got the next word right, Gokul didn’t even bother to ask the definition before spelling “nunatak.”
In sharing the title, they made history in two different ways. The bee hadn’t ended in a tie for 52 years — until last year. Now it’s happened for an unprecedented two years running.
What does it mean to finally win the title?
“Definitely surreal, I never would’ve imagined it,” Vanya said.
More than 11 million students took part in local and state spelling bees that sent 285 competitors this week to the national event in suburban Washington.
Proving their superiority over even their toughest competitors, Vanya and Gokul went head-to-head for 10 rounds before the list of 25 championship words was exhausted.
The words included caudillismo, thamakau, scytale, Bruxellois and pyrrhuloxia. Vanya appeared to struggle only with the Fijian-derived thamaku, which is a type of outrigger canoe.
Fourteen-year-old Cole Shafer-Ray of Norman, Okla., making his first appearance in the finals, finished third.
Vanya qualified for the finals based on a written test Wednesday night and correctly spelling both her words earlier Thursday.
In participating in a fifth national bee, she notched more than any other competitor. And with a sibling who won the national title, some considered Vanya a “legacy.”
Before the semifinals began Thursday, Kavya, 19, told Vanya to relax and enjoy the moment.
Kavya, a pre-med student at Columbia University in New York, said she has helped her sister a little this week, but not enough to regain her old spelling skills.
“My spelling knowledge has definitely deteriorated since 2009,” she said. “Some of these words, I’m sitting here and I’m like, ‘Oh, gosh, I have no idea how to spell this.’”
In the semifinals, Vanya, 13, spelled “consomme,” a type of clear soup, and “mediobrome,” a process for using oil paints to alter monochrome photographs.
Vanya charged into the final round tied for fourth place, with a score of 64 points.
Her routine before she goes on stage in front of several hundred parents and spectators wass pretty simple, she said: “I hug my parents, just get some last words of advice and just chill out and enjoy everything.”
Her mom, Sandy Shivashankar, said Vanya spends “an hour or two hours on the weekdays (studying), that’s the maximum … on the weekends a few hours.”
Sandy and Mirle Shivashankar, Vanya’s father, are both software engineers who work for Booz Allen Hamilton, a technology consulting firm. Sandy’s client is the Department of Agriculture; Mirle’s is the Walt Disney Co.
Before Thursday night’s finals, Sandy Shivashankar said a win by Vanya would mean a lot for the family, and it would mark the first time two siblings have won the National Spelling Bee.
“She’s following in her sister’s footsteps,” Sandy Shivashankar said. “So we want her to win, but it’s OK (if she doesn’t). We are still proud of her because she made it this far.”
Before the finals, Vanya said her career goal hadn’t changed in the five years since her first national bee.
“When I grow up, I want to be a cardiac surgeon,” she said. “I’ve always been really fascinated by the heart.”
The spelling bee champion gets a $30,000 prize plus an engraved trophy; a $5,000 cash prize from Words With Friends; a $2,500 U.S. savings bond and a reference library from Merriam-Webster; and $1,100 worth of reference works from Encyclopedia Britannica.
Joining Vanya in the finals were Gokul; Dev Jaiswal of Mississippi; Cole Shafer-Ray of Oklahoma; Siddharth Krishnakumar of Texas; Tejas Muthusamy of Virginia; Paul Keaton of Kentucky; Siyona Mishra of Florida; Snehaa Ganesh Kumar of California; and Sylvie Lamontagne of Colorado.
Gokul, 14, finished third last year, behind the two co-champions. He had a gruff on-stage demeanor, asking about the word’s roots and definition before chugging through the letters as if he had dinner plans.
“I wasn’t nervous,” said Gokul, a LeBron James fan who said his priority for after the bee was watching the NBA finals.
Both are eighth-graders, so it was their last chance. Vanya was competing in the bee for the fifth and final time. Because Kavya competed four times, it means the Shivashankar family has made the trip nine of the past 10 years.
As for Vanya:
“I’ve been doing spelling for a really long time,” she said Thursday afternoon. “It’s one of my biggest passions. But if I won this, it would be a dream come true.”
And so it was.
Ramsen Shamon, special to The Star, contributed to this report, as did Terri Yinmeng Liu and The Associated Press.