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.
All of the National Spelling Bee champions since 2008 are North South Foundation veterans, Chitturi said.
“It’s a platform. Early on, we try to encourage parents and say, ‘Start early. Start in first grade.’ Then slowly move up the ladder - the ladder of excellence,” said Chitturi.
The foundation has similar contests in essay writing, mathematics, geography and other fields. A week before the spelling bee, another North South Foundation product, Akhil Rekulapelli, of Ashburn, Virginia, won the $50,000 top prize at the National Geographic Bee.
Another feeder is the for-profit South Asian Spelling Bee, which draws about 1,500 contestants in a dozen U.S. cities and has a national title. Founder Rahul Walia said some parents believed his contest was tougher than the National Spelling Bee.
“Spelling is that game - or sport - that they encourage their children to be in,” he said.
The winning streak also is seen as a result of the close-knit Indian American families’ emphasis on academic performance and success in the United States.
A Pew Research Center analysis shows that almost 40 percent of Indian Americans over 25 have advanced degrees, four times the overall U.S. level. Their median household income is about $88,000 a year, almost $40,000 above the U.S. average, the Pew data said.
For Indian Americans, “education is a way to salvation,” Chitturi said.
He and Lala, the 1999 champion, said it was not all about memorizing words but recognizing patterns and word origins, and knowing other languages.
Lala, now 29 and entering medical school, said that National Spelling Bee contestants should just enjoy the experience of being there.
“You’re only up against the next word. That’s all you have to focus on. That’s it,” she said.
Reporting by Ian Simpson; editing by Gunna Dickson