Can you spell epulation? Miami student heads to spelling bee finals

Vasundara Giovindarajan, 12, reacts after winning the Miami Herald Spelling Bee at Jungle Island on Tues., March 8, 2016.
Vasundara Giovindarajan, 12, reacts after winning the Miami Herald Spelling Bee at Jungle Island on Tues., March 8, 2016.

In the days of spellcheck and speech-to-text, why learn how to spell words like usufructuary and escargot?

Plenty of reasons, according to super spellers competing in the Miami Herald’s 76th annual spelling bee held Tuesday at Jungle Island.

“To get into middle school and (do well on) the SATs,” said Mikey Zoi, in fourth grade at Fisher Island Day School.

“I can help people,” said Amy Sanchez-Lima, a seventh-grader at Kings Christian School in Southwest Miami-Dade County, who said others rely on her spelling prowess in class. “They ask me all the time: ‘How do you spell this?’”

Explained Camila Sanchez-Perez, in fifth grade at Wesley Matthews Elementary in Southwest Dade: “These days we have to take our tests on computers, and we don’t have spell-check. So it could be useful in everyday life.”

About 150 kids in elementary and middle school went head-to-head in the Miami-Dade County spelling bee sponsored by Burger King, the Children’s Trust and Nicklaus Children's Hospital. The winner lands a spot at the Scripps National Spelling Bee held in May in Washington, D.C.

Representing Miami-Dade will be Vasundara Govindarajan — a two-time winner for whom excellent spelling runs in the family.

The 12 year old at Archimedean Academy won the competition with the word epulation — meaning “feasting” or “banqueting,” according to Merriam Webster dictionary.

Her skinny arms shot into the air and her big brother lifted her in a hug off of the stage. Then the sixth-grader with braided pigtails jumped into her dad’s lap.

“This year I was more prepared, so I felt more comfortable,” she said.

Her dad, Muthiah, explained the win: “She knows the roots and how the language evolves. That’s a key part of it.”

It took several tense rounds — and a few misspelled words — before Govindarajan clinched first place. It’s her second time winning: Vasundara, now in sixth grade, bested the elementary school competition last year. She’s following in the footsteps of her older brother, Vaidya, who has also won a spot at the national bee.

“We really care for each other and that’s a big deal. You can’t raise a champion without substantial support,” said Vaidya, a senior at Archimedean.

This was the first year that both elementary and middle school students faced off, giving younger students a chance to compete at the national event. In Miami-Dade, the second-place finisher was Valentina Burgos, a 10-year-old fifth-grader at John I. Smith K-8 Center in Doral. Kyler Pace of Alexander Montessori finished third.

Valentina’s father, Ricardo Burgos, bowed his head in prayer as his daughter tried to spell her way to victory. Last year it was his younger daughter who made it to the county finals – after beating Valentina in a school-wide bee.

“I’m super proud. I’ve had two girls back-to-back here,” Burgos said.

There were several appeals from unhappy parents and students who misspelled words, leaving competitors to wait on stage while munching sugar cookies and awaiting a verdict from judges. Mark Schermeister, who helped organize the event, blamed the dustups on discrepancies between electronic dictionaries and printed dictionaries.

“Most of these kids go online to do their studying. The official Scripps document is the paper version,” he explained.

Broward County will hold its spelling bee March 15, and the winner will also head to the national competition.

Christina Veiga: 305-376-2029, @cveiga