Olathe spelling bee star ties for fifth in national contest

Olathe’s spelling phenomenon, Vanya Shivashankar, came close to making history Thursday night.

In her third trip to the national spelling bee, 11-year-old Vanya tied for fifth in the nation. She correctly spelled four words in the championship rounds, but stumbled on a fifth, zenaida.

Had she won it all at the 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee, Vanya would have been the first sibling of a Scripps champion to take the prize. Her sister Kavya, who was in the audience Thursday night, was the 2009 national champion.

Vanya, who spells words in her hand onstage and uses her knowledge of word rules and language roots to help navigate unfamiliar vocabulary, joined 10 other spellers in the competition’s championship finals that were broadcast on ESPN.

The winner was Arvind Mahankali, who attends school in Bayside, N.Y. He’s the first male champion since 2008.

Before missing that fifth word, the 11-year-old California Trail Middle School sixth-grader correctly spelled minauderies, followed by myelogenous, shillibeer and cravenette during the championship rounds.

Earlier in the day, she spelled Michelangelesque and bilboquet.

“Everything that I’ve learned here will, I know for sure be used in life later,” Vanya said after the competition. She was sponsored by The Star’s sister publication, The Olathe News.

Though her confidence and wordplay have made her something of a Scripps star — she tied for 10th place last year — Vanya is part of a legacy.

She has been attending the bee since she was only 3 years old, initially watching Kavya compete. She calls Kavya her role model.

“Everyone says I’m basically following my sister’s footsteps,” Vanya said earlier. She dreams of being a cardiac surgeon. She also acts, sings, dances, plays music, swims and bikes.

In a bee week interview, Kavya said that despite supporting her sister in the past, she regretted not being able to help Vanya more this year because of the time demands of being a graduating high school senior.

Still, she said that Vanya was “like a pro already” since she grew up around the Scripps bee.

“She was always there for me when I was a speller, so it’s kind of reversing the roles,” Kavya said. “It’s just great to get to experience the bee through her now. I just want to see her do her best this year.”

Throughout the week, one thing was clear: Vanya is in love with words.

“I get to learn more things about the English language and how things are put together and where they come from,” she said. “It’s just really cool to understand words.”

Further, she says there’s much more to spelling than meets the inexperienced eye.

“It’s not just spelling words — it’s understanding them and like coming here and making new friends and having a lot of fun,” Vanya said.

Despite the sisters’ shared passion and luck in the busy world of spelling bees, their father, Mirle Shivashankar, insists that at the end of the day, it’s all about having fun and learning. His girls enjoy what they do, he said before the bee began.

“Otherwise, it’s very difficult to keep up with it for this long.”

Winning, he said, isn’t as important as the personal growth the bee experience can give. First and foremost, he wants his girls to be good people.

“Keeping the kids grounded is I think one of the most important things in the Shivashankar family,” he said. “There are a lot more things that they can do in their lives but this is just one step along the way.”

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