Commentary

Stellar speller: Kavya Shivashankar's road to victory

Updated: June 11, 2009, 12:52 PM ET
By Maithreyi Gopalakrishnan | Special to ESPNRISE.com

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I first met Kavya Shivashankar four years ago when I was a sixth-grader participating in the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Shivashankar, a fourth-grader at the time, approached me in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt hotel in Washington, D.C. She introduced herself as the winner of the Jack and Jill spelling bee, and she wanted to ask me for some tips on spelling bee preparation. I could tell that she was extraordinarily motivated and that she was eager to become a part of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, too.

Now 13 years old and heading into high school in the fall, Shivashankar is the 82nd annual Scripps National Spelling Bee champion. She shined above 292 other spellers from across the nation and sealed her victory by correctly spelling "Laodicean," a word that means lukewarm or indifferent in religion or politics.

I interviewed the newly crowned champion from Olathe, Kan., about her memories from the bee, her sentiments on winning and her plans for the future.

ESPN RISE: How did it feel to win a competition on national TV that you have been working so hard for since elementary school?

Kavya Shivashankar: It feels great, and it's so exciting. It felt unbelievable and surreal at the moment, but now I'm just really excited about it and so glad that all the work I've put in has paid off.

RISE: How did you prepare for both the difficult words and the stress and nerves that come with the competition?

Shivashankar: I used two sources to start off, "Spell It" and the Consolidated Word List. My dad is my coach, so we both worked a lot on root words and expanded the study lists from there. I also studied many etymology patterns. I didn't just memorize the words, and instead I used clues like the language of origin, roots and the definition to put the words together. With the nerves, I just took the spelling bee one word at a time, which helped me calm down. I was enjoying myself out there, so I had fun and I wasn't too nervous.

RISE: Will the bee be difficult to replace in high school? How are you planning to fill up the time that you dedicated toward studying for it?

Shivashankar: It will be difficult to replace, but I know high school will be tougher, so I'll probably be spending more time studying for school. I also plan to take part in some science programs that are offered through my school.

RISE: Are there any other hobbies you would like to pursue in high school?

Shivashankar: I do classical Indian dance, so I'll be pursuing that further. I also plan to continue playing violin, swimming and biking.

RISE: What have been some of your best memories (other than winning, of course!) from the spelling bee and from D.C.?

Shivashankar: The whole bee experience has been great. Going to D.C. four times was really fun, and I had a great time meeting so many new people and making friends. I just have so many great memories from participating in the bee.

RISE: What are some lessons that you learned from the bee that will benefit you in the years to come?

Shivashankar: For me, the spelling bee was about a lot more than just roots and vocabulary. I think that I greatly improved my focus and discipline by participating in the bee. The competition also helped a lot with my public speaking skills.

RISE: What college and/or career plans do you have at this point?

Shivashankar: I don't know what college I want to go to yet, but I know that I want to be a neurosurgeon, so I want to go to a really good medical school.

RISE: What aspects of being a neurosurgeon draw you toward this career?

Shivashankar: I am really interested in how the brain works and how the human body works. I really got interested in being a neurosurgeon when I participated in the Jack and Jill spelling bee, as they only asked medical words, and that got me interested in how the brain and the human body function.

RISE: How are you planning on staying connected with the bee, although you can no longer participate in it?

Shivashankar: I know that my sister is really interested in the spelling bee. Although my dad was my main coach and will probably be her main coach if she wants to participate, I would love to help coach and give her some tips.

RISE: Thanks so much for your time, and congratulations on your win!

Shivashankar: Thanks!

Maithreyi Gopalakrishnan is a sophomore at Peak to Peak Charter School in Lafayette, Colo.
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