How do you spell 'winner' at the National Spelling Bee?

Tue May 27, 2014 9:34am EDT
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By Ian Simpson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - No one knows who will win the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Maryland this week, but if past performance is anything to go by, odds are an Indian American youngster will walk away with the trophy.

Children of Indian origin have had a stunning run in the nationally televised contest, nailing words such as "guerdon," "stromuhr" and "guetapens" to win 10 times in the last 15 years.

Last year's winner, New York middle-schooler Arvind Mahankali, was the sixth Indian American in a row to take the title and a $30,000 scholarship. Indian Americans swept the top three spots in 2013, the same as the year before.

Of the 281 whizzes, ages 8 to 15, who will gather on Wednesday and Thursday at a hotel in Oxon Hill, Maryland, almost a quarter have names pointing to South Asian origins.

Indian Americans make up only about 1 percent of the U.S. population, but will punch well above their weight at the National Spelling Bee.

Their rise as the rock stars of the all-American spelling contest comes from a simple formula: minor league systems, a family focus on education, and hard work, Bee watchers say.

"I don't think there's any secret or anything innate in Indian kids winning spelling bees. I don't think there's a spelling gene," said Nupur Lala, who started the South Asian streak in 1999 and inspired a generation of spellers by starring in the Oscar-nominated documentary "Spellbound."

The non-profit North South Foundation is one breeding ground for winners. Thousands of young spellers compete in foundation contests, started by Illinois engineer Ratnam Chitturi in 1989, hoping to advance to U.S. championships.   Continued...

Arvind Mahankali of New York holds his trophy after winning the National Spelling Bee at National Harbor in Maryland May 30, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque