Of 281 students participating at the Scripps National Spelling Bee this year, 22 spellers have relatives who have participated in a combined 52 Scripps National Spelling Bees. Two spellers this year, Vanya Shivashankar and Anamika Veeramani, have older siblings who are former bee champions.
What gets a younger sibling buzzing about the bee? Though the opportunity of a trip to Washington, D.C., and the glamour of appearing on live television before an audience of millions certainly has appeal, most siblings simply share a desire to succeed.
A spark of interest
Often, a speller cites the first time they watched their older sibling in the bee as the moment they were inspired to pursue the same path.
Joseph Cusi Delamerced, 14, of Cincinnati, Ohio, has had two older siblings compete in the national bee. He is competing in the national bee for the third time, and seeing his sister Anna and brother Tino first spell in smaller school and regional bees led to his eventual involvement.
“The first time I knew I wanted to be in the bee was probably when I first qualified in our 4th grade bee, even then I thought it was exciting to spell there. My brother was in that bee, and I thought it would be interesting to learn the words. When my sister first went to nationals, the interest stemmed there,” Joseph said.
One thing spellers made clear: There is no sibling rivalry going on.
“I would never say I’m a better speller than my sister,” said Paul Keaton, 13, of Pikeville, Kentucky. “My sister assists me in spelling studies, and we respect other, though I do find that self-study is more efficient.”
This year will be Paul’s first time competing at the bee. His sister Emily is a five-time national bee competitor. Her last year of competition was 2013.
For Vanya Shivashankar, 12, of Olathe, Kansas, during her first trip to the bee in D.C. to watch her sister Kavya in 2006, she was barely tall enough to reach the microphone, but she already knew she wanted to be just like her sister.
“I think right when I started seeing her (Kavya) in bees locally and regionally I realized I wanted to do it and be just like her,” Vanya said. “Kavya always helps me study. It’s her first year of college, and she helps me on the phone and with moral support.”
Joseph has also found that when it comes time for competition, being part of a bee family has its benefits.
“It’s very beneficial, they have advice and help me try to learn from them,” Joseph said. “They can really help with any problems I have so far. Like ‘just breathe, don’t be nervous.’”
The circle of life
For Anna Cusi Delamerced, now a student at Brown University, passing on the spelling bee torch to her younger siblings feels a lot like “The Lion King.”
“I’m excited for Joseph, and I was excited for Tino. It’s like ‘The Lion King’ circle of life,” Anna said. “When they first qualified, I was really happy for them. We tend to really like similar things, and I know they work hard, and it’s another way to bond and become closer to each other.”
“This year we can all be together at the bee for the first time, and it really inspires some sort of nostalgia.”
When it comes to her own start with the bee, which sparked her younger brothers’ eventual involvement, it was less inspiration and more accident.
“I guess it started around 7th grade,” Anna said. “I wasn’t really looking to compete in the bee. Our teacher gave us a short quiz, and I did well enough to qualify for the bee. I sort of just accidentally became a speller.”
Anna admitted that the happy accident quickly became a passion.
“I got really into it later on,” Anna said.
Anna reiterated a point that this year’s competitors made clear: there is no sibling rivalry going on.
“I love my brothers too much for that,” Anna said. “I’m thankful to have siblings to share this with.”
Younger brother Tino agreed. “People automatically think there is a sibling rivalry, but there isn’t,” Tino said.
“Our siblings’ successes are our successes as well. We want him to be happy.”
He also voiced his excitement for younger brother Joseph’s journey.
“I’m really excited,” Tino said. “All of the family is going this year for the first time. It’s the last shot for the Delamerceds.”
Back at the hive
Another thing Joseph, Vanya and Paul have in common: Proud parents along for the ride.
To Mirle Shivashankar, father of Vanya, who is competing at the national bee for the fourth time this year, and 2009 Scripps National Spelling Bee champion Kavya, spelling bees are truly a familial effort. The Shivanshankars have been to the bee so often, they run a blog for interested fans and other spelling bee families.
In addition to his job, for which he travels frequently, Shivashankar also helps to run the North-South Foundation National Spelling Bee. The NSF bee unites Indian-American children with children in India, and raises money for students in India, often in the form of scholarships. Shivashankar serves as a judge, and Kavya a pronouncer, and thus Vanya has been voluntarily removed from competition in this bee.
Through the NSF, the bee provides an opportunity for Shivashankar to teach his children another important lesson. “I think it is important to show them the art of giving, and the bee gives us an opportunity to do that,” Shivashankar said.
For Victoria Cusi Delamerced, having a bee family has run the gamut.
“Initially (with Anna) the bee was accidental, and on the third one (Joseph), it’s more deliberate,” Delamerced said. “It’s a harder path, but as a parent I have to focus on the good things it has brought us.”
For the record, though Delamerced is “officially Joseph’s psuedo-coach,” there is no spelling bee quizzing over breakfast.
Much like most parents, “We are always so busy in the morning, rushing around. Joseph wakes up late and we barely make it to school,” Delamerced said.
Interestingly, English is not Delamerced’s first language.
“My husband and I are both physicians, and English is not my first language but Joseph had to have someone sit down with him to give him words,” Delamerced said. “I feel like I had to learn how to spell in order to give him guidance and help him.”
One might wonder if all the effort is worth it. All of the parents interviewed offered a resounding yes, and emphasized the bee’s role in teaching important life lessons to their children.
“It’s really brought us closer as a family, navigating through the bee, just the ups and downs of the bee, and focusing on the work ethic, the grit that comes with it,” Delamerced said.
“You learn to persevere, to be patient, to really work hard and all those things are going to be more important than the actual words.”
What, no pageant parents?
Delamerced laughed at the thought.
“You’re so focused on your own children,” Delamerced said. “The thing that I find so heartening is that other parents all share very similar experiences in learning how to handle the pressures of the bee, and thank goodness we’re not alone.”
For Jill Keaton, having two children that have been so successful in making it to the national level of the spelling bee is simply a blessing.
“We feel very blessed, and we plan to be as supportive as we can,” Keaton said. “It’s not about who wins, its the journey, its the process and they’ve learned so much and we’re very proud of them. We’re just really looking forward to it.”
Parents were not without praise for the E.W. Scripps Company, which took ownership of and has been running the bee since 1941.
“There is such a camaraderie,” Delamerced said. “Such a positive atmosphere that Scripps creates and encourages. I marvel at how these kids root for each other. It’s the speller against the dictionary, but they root for other kids.”
“Scripps does a great job of setting the tone, and Midwestern values come to a national spotlight,” Delamerced said. “They really celebrate.”
The root of success
Though many bee participants as well as spectators were thrown by the addition of vocabulary to the competition last year, not all considered it an unwelcome change.
“It’s a good thing in the long run, but last year it came as a very big surprise,” Shivashankar said. “It affected how we were preparing, but it’s very helpful for learning the roots of words.”
His daughter Vanya was competing, and had a hard time adjusting her study patterns that late in the game.
“It was something new, and it was a little hard for me to adjust to do both, it was just really sudden,” Vanya said. “This year I’m ready.”
Joseph echoed that sentiment.
“When the vocab portion was introduced it got a little harder. Kinda doubled the study efforts,” Joseph said.
Past bee participants agree that the bee definitely seems harder now, and it’s not all due to the addition of the vocabulary requirement.
“I definitely think the added vocabulary component made it harder,” Tino said.
Older sister Anna indicated she wasn’t shocked or necessarily thrilled by the addition of vocabulary to the competition. “I wasn’t surprised, but I knew it would be hard. I think it takes away the organic rawness of having spelling, but I see why they did it,” Anna said.
“A few decades ago, the words were less complicated, and as the bee keeps progressing there is more heightened competition,” Anna added.
When it’s study time for the bee, the participants we spoke to, as well as their parents, agreed that one thing is most important: focusing on the root.
“We compile lists by different roots and languages and learn how words are formed and use fundamental rules to put words together,” Vanya said of her somewhat scientific approach.
The words Vanya loves to study are Greek and Latin words that she can piece together using root clues.
Paul likes the challenge of words with roots in Portuguese, which can sometimes hide vowel sounds that aren’t pronounced.
Joseph favors English, Latin and Greek words.
“They have very solid roots, and always follow their language rules,” Joseph said. “It’s cool that some of these words made it to the English dictionary thousands of years later.”
“We’ve always focused on root words and knowing what the words meant,” Delamerced said of the studying approach of her three children. “Our style has been to guess properly by learning the root of words, teaching them how to guess the root and learn patterns.”
The means of studying are also less complicated than one might assume. Rather than relying on computer programs or hired coaches, the spellers get their best studying done with family members, and by studying the written word.
Joseph emphasized that studying language rules is more important than memorizing the dictionary. “It’s very difficult to study the dictionary. I focus on learning on how letters are treated in each language, and pray before each study session,” Joseph said.
Paul acknowledged using traditional means of studying words. “It takes hard work and focus,” Paul said. “With new technology, the bee still has to adapt to that and use harder words.”
As far as the lofty goal of winning the bee, though Vanya, Paul and Joseph are all certainly aiming high, one thing they and their families emphasize is the win isn’t what’s important.
According to these families, the most important thing the bee provides is the skills to succeed, and the journey to D.C. is paved with many lessons of its own.
Shivashankar believes all the kids come out winners, just for having competed.
“Anyone in the top ten last year, or the finals, has a chance to win this year, and luck can play a big role,” Shivashankar said. “What we tell Vanya is don’t worry about the outcome, worry about giving it her best, and leave an element to luck.”
Along those lines, former national bee participant Anna has these words of advice for would-be spellers:
“If you want to get into it, enjoy the journey. It’s about discovering words, and the beauty of words, and there is so much beauty in the trials, and so much support. All of our experiences make up who we are in the end, and the outcome doesn’t.”
The 2014 Scripps National Spelling Bee will take place on May 27, 28 and 29 at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in Washington, D.C.
Preliminary rounds will air on ESPN3 at 8 a.m. and 1:15 p.m. on Wednesday. The semifinals will be broadcast on ESPN2 on Thursday at 10 a.m., and the championship finals will be broadcast live on ESPN on Thursday at 8 p.m.