A few days ago, Vanya Shivashankar snapped back to reality.
The 13-year-old girl from Olathe had been crowned co-champion of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. She had traveled coast to coast and appeared on national TV shows, spelling for crowds all along the way.
But she realized shortly after waking up in her own bed for the first time in weeks that this is what her life could be like now. The challenge was over.
“It’s kind of finally settling in that I’ve won and that I’m not going to be studying spelling anymore,” Vanya said.
She had spent years working, studying, dreaming of winning a spelling bee. On May 28, she got her victory. She dedicated it to her grandmother, who had died in October 2013.
A handful of days after returning home, the spotlight was still on Vanya. But along with the attention, there was the void any champion feels after a final victory. No more practicing. No more training. No more competing.
The celebratory streamers on the Shivashankars’ front lawn have been defeated by rain. A sign taped to the garage reminded all who passed that Vanya “slayed the bee.” The welcome home message written in chalk on her front step had begun to fade.
The Xbox One that Jimmy Kimmel gave Vanya after her appearance on his show was still in the box, a single red bow adorning the pricey console. And Vanya was indulging in two things she rarely gets to do: hanging out with her older sister Kavya and not worrying about anything.
“I think I’m actually living in the moment right now,” Vanya said. “I’m really enjoying this summer, not because I’m not doing spelling but because I’m really not going to do anything.”
Being a typical teenager, a typical high-schooler, will be good. She plans to join more clubs after she starts her freshman year. Playing the tuba fell by the wayside, but doing theater and getting back on stage holds allure. She’ll still play the piano, and she’s looking forward to spending more time with her friends.
There’s still the void that spelling has left behind. Most days she’d study for around two hours and sometimes more on the weekends. When she spelled a word correctly she’d get a happy feeling, the kind of feeling like she’d just hung out with her best friends or gotten off a roller coaster. Now she’s trying to replicate that sensation.
“I’ll just have to find things to patch it up, I guess,” Vanya said. “Nothing can really take spelling’s place.”
Vanya wants to enjoy high school but still get good grades. It may help that she was crowned a Child Genius on Lifetime TV. But college is far off.
“Right now I want her to have fun,” her father, Mirle Shivashankar, said. “Eventually I want her to do what she wants to do and excel.”
Her older sister Kavya remembers the feeling of getting national recognition after she won the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 2009, and she also understands the hole spelling left behind. Between the two sisters, the Shivashankars have attended almost a decade’s worth of spelling bees. If they go back next year, it will be as a family of spectators.
“I’ve always loved being on stage,” Vanya said. “It’s going to be weird just sitting in the audience.”
Kavya, now a student at Columbia University, said that it was a difficult summer for her after she won the spelling bee and that even now, it’s hard to leave spelling behind. She recently told Vanya she should relax for a little bit while still finding ways to keep busy.
“Letting go of spelling is a little tough,” Kavya said.
Vanya likes the competition of spelling. After she finished tied for 13th place in the 2014 Scripps National Spelling Bee, Vanya remembers diving back into studying almost as soon as she got home.
“Spelling is my passion,” Vanya said. “You can’t just be forced to do something. You really need to like it.”
She’d dreamed of winning. But a funny thing happened when she won, a realization that made Vanya smile when she remembered it.
“Reality was cooler,” she said.
For Vanya, reality isn’t all that different from any teen’s.
Her favorite books and movies are the “Hunger Games” series, and she enjoys watching the TV crime staples “CSI,” “Criminal Minds” and “Bones.” She doesn’t have a favorite song, though. Often she’s content just listening to the music that passes through the radio, but the timeless nature of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” sticks with her.
“It’s one of the old songs that will always be good for a really long time,” Vanya said. “The ones on the radio are just good for now.”
These are the kinds of things that will dominate her summer, her first in years where spelling won’t loom large. She can spend afternoons playing with her yellow Labrador retriever, Champ. She can hang out at friends’ houses and stave off the summer heat poolside. She can be a kid while the spelling spreadsheets and flash cards that helped her study for years are left untouched.
Her family is planning to take a cruise. Before high school starts, though, she’ll have to worry about summer projects: a packet of honors biology homework and reading Sue Monk Kidd’s “The Secret Life of Bees” for pre-AP English.
In August, she’ll start her freshman year in the Distinguished Scholars program at Olathe North High School.
Vanya said she’s a little anxious about starting at a new school — some of her friends from middle school will be going to Olathe East High School. But Vanya is outgoing and already looking forward to joining Science Olympiad.
Connie Viebrock, Vanya’s principal at California Trail Middle School, said the spelling champ’s character and grace draw classmates to her. She said the excitement of Vanya’s supporters showed that the 13-year-old has genuine friends who were truly excited to see her succeed on a national stage.
“With all of her intelligence, she never made anyone feel that they couldn’t compete with her and work with her,” Viebrock said.
The night of Vanya’s return, four friends waiting at the airport couldn’t figure out where to surprise her.
Would the spelling champ come out of this entrance? Should they meet her at baggage claim? They kept moving, holding makeshift posters and a yellow foam crown celebrating their childhood friend’s latest victory.
When Vanya did appear, the friends ran toward her and crowned her with their personalized spelling bee regalia.
“Can I take it off now?” Vanya said, tired but smiling.
“No, you have to wear it forever,” one of her friends joked.