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Former national spelling bee champ explains winning strategy

Kavya Shivashankar.jpg
Posted at 10:47 AM, Jun 11, 2021

OLATHE, Kan. — Few people can say they've won the Scripps National Spelling Bee, except for an Olathe native and her sister.

Kavya Shivashankar won in 2009 and Vanya Shivashankar won in 2015.

Their dad and coach Mirle Shivashankar said training for the annual event wasn't about memorizing words.

"A word that comes from Italian or a word that comes from French to English, they carry some patterns. So, understanding those patterns on one side. On the other side, understanding if it's a word with Greek or Latin roots, what are those roots? Understanding the meaning of those roots because the roots are in many English words," Mirle Shivashankar said.

The 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee begins Saturday, June 12.

Ahead of the event, Kavya explained the strategies that helped her win in 2009.

"Writing the word on my palm helped me visualize it. I've made accidents in the past where I say a letter and didn't mean it and you couldn't back track," Kavya said. "Being able to trace the letters and visualize the word really helped. And the second thing was trying to figure out what questions I wanted to ask next."

With the entire world watching, Kavya said her strategy for managing the pressure of the moment involved eliminating distractions.

"I really tuned out everything else," she remembers. "What I saw was the pronouncer, the associate pronouncer and the panel of judges."

This year's event will look different than previous years. For the first time ever, the spelling bee will be a hybrid virtual and in-person competition.

Kavya says the competition offers a chance for like-minded young people to connect.

However, she added the change could be a benefit to some and disadvantage to others.

"I think it really will just play to each individual speller's strengths and the experience they take from it," Kavya said. "I'm sure the collaborative environment has only increased because of it being virtual."

Kavya added that collaborative environment is one that existed when she competed and has established relationships that continue years later.