Fourth Spells a Charm

On his fourth trip to the finals, Arvind Mahankali, 13, wins the Scripps National Spelling Bee

May 31, 2013 | By Kelli Plasket with AP reporting
CHUCK MYERS—MCT/GETTY IMAGES

Arvind Makankali, 13, stands under a shower of confetti after winning the 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee, in Oxon Hill, Maryland.

At the 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee, Arvind Mahankali was determined not to let a word of German origin stump him. The 13-year-old speller had finished in third place at the 2011 and 2012 bees. Both times, he was eliminated on German-based words.

Amber Born, 14, of Marblehead, Massachusetts, celebrates after correctly spelling a word during the semifinal round of the spelling bee. Amber finished in fourth place.
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI—AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Amber Born, 14, of Marblehead, Massachusetts, celebrates after correctly spelling a word during the semifinal round of the spelling bee. Amber finished in fourth place.

But on Thursday night, Arvind correctly spelled “knaidel,” a word from German-derived Yiddish, to win the bee, which was held in Oxon Hill, Maryland, and aired live on ESPN. A knaidel is a small mass of leavened dough commonly used in soups. Some may know it as a dumpling. Arvind could barely contain his smile as he heard the word and prepared to spell it. “The German curse has turned into a German blessing,” Arvind told an ESPN host after his win.

A Redefined Bee

Arvind faced some tough obstacles this year, from both his fellow contestants and bee officials. In April, Scripps announced that the 281 spellers who qualified for the national bee would be tested on both spelling and vocabulary. For the first time in the contest's 87-year history, vocabulary tests were given. Contestants answered computer-based, multiple-choice vocabulary questions in the preliminary and semifinal rounds. The new rule was made to further encourage contestants to learn useful skills. "Spelling and vocabulary are, in essence, two sides of the same coin," Paige Kimble, the bee's executive director, said in a statement.

Contestants take the computerized preliminary test at the national spelling bee, which included spelling and vocabulary sections for the first time this year.
CLIFF OWEN—AP
Contestants take the computerized preliminary test at the national spelling bee, which included spelling and vocabulary sections for the first time this year.

The vocabulary test got this year’s contestants buzzing with mixed reactions. Some spellers wondered why the new rule wasn’t announced earlier. "It was kind of a different challenge," said Vismaya Kharkar, 14, of Bountiful, Utah. "I've been focusing my studying on the spelling for years and years.”

The vocabulary test didn’t stop Vismaya from advancing to the finals, where he tied for 5th place with 11-year-old Vanya Shivashankar. Pranav Sivakuma, 13, finished second after misspelling “cyanophyscean,” a word for a blue-green alga. Sriran Hathwar, 13, finished third, and Amber Born, 14, came in fourth.

Arvind, an eighth grader from Bayside, Queens, is the sixth consecutive Indian-American to win the bee. He’s also the first boy to win since 2008. Arvind made his first trip to the finals of the bee in 2010, when he finished ninth. This year’s victory came in his final year of eligibility. He’s walking away with a big trophy as well as $30,000 in cash and a $2,500 savings bond.

What will Arvind do this summer, now that he doesn’t have to memorize dictionary words? “I shall spend the summer studying physics,” said the aspiring physicist.