Four KC-area kids will face a tougher spell at national bee

Four Kansas City-area students are set to use their knowledge of words — and their meanings — this week at the 86th annual Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Three first-time competitors — Meah N. Wilburn, Sterling A. Hollond and Evan Filer — and bee veteran Vanya Shivashankar will go against 277 fellow spellers for cash, savings bonds and other prizes in National Harbor, Md., just outside the nation’s capital.

The preliminary competitions starts today. The finals will be broadcast live Thursday on ESPN.

And, for the first time, competitors also must define the words they spell.

Meah Wilburn is a 12-year-old sixth-grader from Highland Park Elementary School in Lee’s Summit. The native of Chengdu, China, is a swimmer, artist, musician, public speaker, fashion-design enthusiast, pageant competitor and aspiring journalist who dreams of working at Vogue magazine.

She studies packets and uses online tools to prepare for the bee. Though she says a big part of her strategy is not stressing out, she has one superstition.

“I usually look at the ceiling, and in my head, I see the word, kind of like it’s being typed out on a computer screen,” Meah said.

Her inspiration was seeing Lee’s Summit native and three-time Scripps participant Jordan Hoffman compete on TV.

“For her, I think it’s just another great opportunity to build poise and confidence and, you know, get experience being in a pretty stressful situation and yet being able to perform and do her best and be poised,” said Meah’s mom, Laurie Wilburn.

Sterling Hollond is a 12-year-old sixth-grade student from Basehor-Linwood Middle School. He lives in Linwood.

Sterling would like to be a professional hockey or football player. He practices sports, participates in theater and likes to hang out with friends.

His favorite word to spell is “humuhumunukunukuapua’a,” the state fish of Hawaii. He was looking forward to seeing the International Spy Museum in Washington.

Sterling’s mom, Anne Hollond, said her son has prepared with Scripps-provided study lists and nighttime quizzes from his parents, which she called “the next level of bedtime story.”

Sterling said his advice for spellers is to guess the word in their heads first and then use questions about things like language origins and definition to either confirm that they were on the right track or to help them guess again. His said his expert tip is to “stay calm.”

Sterling said he would be only a bit nervous this week.

“It’s still like this good experience, you know, get to see D.C., and you get to have a lot of fun and meet a lot of spellers,” he said.

Evan Filer, a 10-year-old fifth-grader from McEowen Elementary School in Harrisonville, is the youngest of the local bunch. He was most excited to see Washington’s monuments — and to spell, of course.

He began competing in spelling bees in the fourth grade. He used repetition to prepare for taking the stage. When he gets stuck on an unfamiliar word, he runs to its history for help.

“I just try to remember the origin of the word and figure it out in my head,” he said.

Evan, an avid reader, athlete and sports fan, hopes to play basketball or soccer when he grows up. His favorite books are the Harry Potter series.

“We’re very proud of how he’s done, and, you know, he’ll do his very best at the bee,” said Evan’s mother, Jill Filer. “I just want him to have a good time and enjoy the experience.”

Vanya Shivashankar, an 11-year-old California Trail Middle School sixth-grader from Olathe, has competed in spelling bees since she was 5. She tied for 10th place in last year’s national bee and says seeing her older sister Kavya compete “was really cool” and made her want to start spelling competitively. Kavya Shivashankar won the 2009 national bee.

“For spelling bees, we study root words and the derivations and where they come from, like the etymological patterns, so we can understand how to build another word using a rule,” said Vanya, whose favorite word to spell is “taoiseach” (the term for an Irish prime minister) and who has a special love for Greek and Latin words.

Vanya is also a swimmer, singer and actor with five local theater productions under her belt. She wants to be a cardiac surgeon when she grows up.

Though “winning would be awesome,” according to Vanya’s father, Mirle Shivashankar, he said that the biggest prizes aren’t tangible.

“There are other things she wins in going through this experience,” he said. “Those are to be able to focus, you know, discipline herself, to set a goal and work towards it and the way she reads for this bee that will help her in her future career.”