“Spelling is not just taking these 500,000 words in the English language and memorizing them and then you win the spelling bee — that’s not how it works,” Nihar said. “I want people to think of spelling just like any other competition, like wanting to learn the story behind that field and learning how that field can apply to the world.”
“You can’t just eat protein powder and then go be good at football,” he added.
Dhroov said that one of his favorite things about spelling is how it intersects with his other passions, including music. “I worked on the ‘Carnival of Venice’ song on my alto saxophone, and that’s a piece where the dynamics are very important,” he said. “Knowing all these words — for example, ‘crescendo,’ ‘diminuendo,’ ‘ritardando,’ which means to slow down, ‘fortissimo,’ which means play extremely loud” allowed him to “bring emotion to the piece, make it come alive,” he said.
The amount of concentration necessary also inevitably leads to significant time commitments, and plenty of pressure on the kids.
“The level of our competitors has definitely increased. Some of our students prepare for the spelling bee as any other collegiate athlete would with the amount of preparation, the dedication, and the amount of time that they study,” said J. Michael Durnil, the bee’s executive director.
Tarini Nandakumar was, at 10, one of the youngest semifinalists competing this year. Before she struck out in the semifinals, on June 27, she said she wanted to finish what her older brother, Pranav, had started years before. “My brother got 19th place in nationals, so I wanted to continue and try and win,” Tarini said. Of how it felt to have made it that far, “it’s exciting, but also scary,” she said.
The pressure was high. And when Tarini, who is from Round Rock, Texas, didn’t make it to the finals, she felt a lot of disappointment. Many tears were shed at first, she said. Her parents tried to comfort her, and within just a few days, she said she came around, and was asking for help to start studying again.
“I’m very motivated to get better next time,” she said. “Or at least get in the top five.”