Vasundara Govindarajan grew up watching her older brother Vaidya spell his way to success — first as a spelling champ, then fast-tracking college to get to medical school, on his way to becoming a doctor in seven years.
But there’s one accolade that eluded her brother: winning the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, a three-day contest that begins Tuesday and turns 90 this year. The competition started in January with more than 11 million students and has been winnowed to 291 spellers, including one 6-year-old girl — a kindergartner from Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Vasundara is one of the 291. The 13-year-old, who sports two braids and a shy smile, secured her spot by winning the Miami Herald Spelling Bee in March with the word boiserie, meaning sculptured paneling, especially that of French architecture in the 18th century.
“I want to do this for him and for my family,” she says. “I call it the promise.”
Her brother won the Miami Herald Spelling Bee when he was 12 and 14.
This is Vasundara’s third consecutive win in the Miami-Dade bee, her second time in the nationals. When she won the first time, she was in elementary school and only the middle-school winner advanced to the national competition.
A seventh-grader at Archimedean Middle Conservatory in Kendale Lakes, she has been memorizing thousands of words over the past year. She practices before school, after school, before bedtime and most Saturdays and Sundays. She and her dad sit on the couch, reviewing pages that he cut from the dictionary and re-assembled into four black vinyl binders.
They go over words like lugubrious (sounding sad). And abecedarius (a poem in which the lines or stanzas begin with the letters of the alphabet — in order). Or arachin, a chemical compound.
Vasundara is hoping to beat last year’s rank of 22nd place. The word she missed: Reseau, a network. (She said she heard the word wrong, got nervous and instead of the first e she said a.)
I just have to remember to take it one letter at a time And do my best.
Vasundara Govindarajan, a seventh-grader, trying to win the top prize in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington
“I just have to remember to take it one letter at a time,” she said. “And do my best.”
Spelling came to the Govindarajan family when Vaidya was in elementary school at Frank C. Martin in Richmond Heights.
“I just remember very early in elementary school watching the finals and thinking it’s interesting and that I'd like to be there,” Vaidya said.
His first taste of success was in fourth grade when he won the school bee with the word lieutenant. He couldn’t wait to tell his parents.
Neither of them had ever been in a spelling bee, nor knew what it took to win one.
Dad, Muthiah, 49, grew up in a small, rural village called Sundarapandiam in southern India. Mom, Sujathah, 43, grew up in Chennai, a popular seaside city on the Bay of Bengal in eastern India. They knew a smattering of English, what they called “Indlish.’’ Their primary language was Tamil, native to India, Sri Lanka, Singapore.
Muthiah moved to the United States in 1991 to enroll in a doctoral program in agriculture at the University of Florida. He learned the bulk of his English at UF, where he attained his Ph.D. When he graduated, he worked in South America and China. In 1996, he went back to India to marry Sujathah, whom he knew in India. The couple moved to Miami that year, where Muthiah landed a job.
After hearing about the Scripps Spelling Bee, Dad began his research: “I had no idea at that point how much work spelling entailed. Parental involvement is the main thing.”
In 2010, when Vaidya was in sixth grade at Herbert C. Ammons Middle School, he won his first Miami Herald Spelling Bee. He went to the national competition, tying for ninth place. Two years later, he won the Miami Herald Spelling Bee again, this time finishing 10th in the nationals.
“It really becomes a sport,” Vaidya said.
While Dad works full time and has been the spelling coach, Sujathah manages the household, chauffeuring kids, cooking dinners, keeping track of homework, piano lessons.
“She basically stays on top of the kids’ education,” he said. “She plays a very, very important role.”
Muthiah quickly realized that learning English and spelling it are two different things: “There are millions of words.”
Muthiah has invested hours and hours studying the dictionary, an old Merriam-Webster one, with 2,662 pages and 470,000 words. He has memorized words and spelling rules. He takes spelling quizzes before springing them on his kids.
He says he spends about 10 hours a week on his review, then coaches his daughter on the weekends. The only time he takes a break is when the family goes on vacation a couple of times a year. “They’d kill me,” he said.
When Vaidya aged out of the Bee — it stops after eighth grade — the skills he acquired made it easier to excel in school. He graduated in the top five of his 2016 class at Archimedean Upper Conservatory out of about 300 students. He was accepted into the accelerated medical school program at the University of Miami, a highly competitive program.
“There's a lot of ways spelling translates to the real world,” he said. “First of all your vocabulary undoubtedly gets a major boost. It’s very helpful on things like the SAT. In terms of your life, it’s very good in terms of work ethic.” He scored above 2,300 out of a maximum 2,400 score.
Vasundara, who started going to the Spelling Bee with her brother when she was about 4 — there is a six-year difference between them — said she has learned a lot by watching him and her dad.
“I would see how hard he worked and I knew I wanted to do that, too,” she said.
At school, she sits in the front row of her civics class, popping her hand up to answer questions in the end-of-the-year course exam review. At lunch, she sits with three lunchtime regulars. They can’t wait to watch her on ESPN. The Bee will air on ESPN Wednesday and Thursday.
“She’s totally going to win,” said Leymi Hernandez, 12.
Although most of the school knows Vasundara is a spelling champ, school administrators and teachers said they treat her just like any other student.
“We couldn’t let her have a free ride,’’ Principal Vasiliki Moysidis said.
During this year’s school bee, English teacher Joanna Sanchez said Vasundara had stiff competition from Karen Laurent, an eighth-grader.
“I thought I was going to run out of words,” Sanchez said. Karen misspelled netsuke, a small sculptural object.
“I was actually scared,” said Vasundara, who has one more year to compete.
At home, spelling is sandwiched between practicing the piano and homework. To relax, she reads science fiction and plays Pokemon video games. She is looking forward to her second trip to the Bee, reconnecting with friends from California and Kentucky. Her brother will be there to cheer her on, as will her parents.
Vasundara is hoping to add another trophy to the case in her parents’ bedroom. But her dad offers a cautionary tale about the Bee.
“It’s a life lesson. You don’t always get everything you want in your life,” he said.
“This is to prepare them to face failure, too, and learn from it.”
▪ The first Bee was in 1925 with nine spellers. Frank Neuhauser, who was from Kentucky and sponsored by The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky, won with the word gladiolus, a flower.
▪ This year, there are 291 spellers — 138 girls and 153 boys — competing in the Scripps National Spelling Bee. The youngest is a 6-year-old girl from Tulsa, Oklahoma. The oldest are two 15-year-old boys — one from Weston, West Virginia, the other from Belmont, N.C. Fourteen spellers have been to the Bee three times.
▪ Round 2 of the preliminaries for spellers 1 to 145 will air on ESPN 3 from 8 to 10 a.m. Wednesday. Spellers 146 to 291 will be aired from 10:15 to 12:25 p.m. Round 3 for spellers 1 to 145 will air on ESPN 3 Wednesday from 1:15 to 3 p.m. and spellers 146 to 291 will be aired from 3:45 to 6 p.m.
▪ Part 1 of the finals will air on ESPN 2 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday. Part 2 will air from 8:30 to 10:30 p.m. Thursday on ESPN.
▪ The preliminaries, which include a written spelling test, multiple choice vocabulary test and two oral rounds, are Wednesday. The finals, which consists of oral rounds until a winner is declared, are Thursday.
▪ The winner of the Spelling Bee walks away with $40,000 and several other prizes, including a trip to New York City to appear on “LIVE with Kelly and Ryan.” Second place gets $30,000 and third place gets $20,000.
To follow the Bee or test your own spelling, visit spellingbee.com.