Olathe speller gets to meet president

WASHINGTON — It took a year, but Kavya Shivashankar of Olathe finally got to meet the president.

The 2009 Scripps National Spelling Bee champion, along with her parents and 8-year-old sister, Vanya — a bee contestant herself for the first time — spent 15 minutes Thursday with President Obama inside the Oval Office.

"It was just so electrifying," Kavya said afterward. "When I won the bee last year, I asked when I was going to get to meet the president. I thought it might not happen. But just two days ago, we got the call."

The family and the president chatted about the spelling bee, which was going on at that very moment at a hotel just a few blocks away; the importance he places on education, and then Vanya said she had a question.

"Are you going to ask me to spell something?" Obama said.

But Vanya just wanted to ask about Bo, the president's dog.

A brief cab ride through the rain took them back to the Grand Hyatt Washington hotel, the site of the bee, where they learned that Vanya, the youngest speller in the competition, had not made the cut to today's semifinals. But no one in the family seemed downcast, least of all her.

"It was just a great experience being on the stage and spelling the words, even if you get it wrong," she said.

Under the rules, no speller is eliminated during the first three rounds. Everyone in the field of 273 contestants remained a contender, although an errant vowel or missing consonant in the round one written exam or the round two and three oral competitions clearly reduced their chances.

Based on a scoring system, 48 contestants will compete in the semifinals this morning, to be aired live on ESPN. The finals will be tonight on ABC.

It's a heady atmosphere: a ballroom full of brainpower, with no speller older than 14. More than a third speak languages other than English, such as Hindi, Hebrew, Tagalog (the Philippines) and Telegu (India).

Their top career choice is physician. Author and engineer tied for second. They also like pizza, "Avatar" and the Harry Potter series.

After the semifinalists were announced, there were embraces, both happy and sad.

"You worked really hard to get this far," one father said softly to his son, who hadn't made the cut. "You should be really proud."

Nearby, a mother gently rubbed her daughter arm.

Vanya has every intention of coming back. After all, it took her older sister several years to make it as far as she did. In the meantime, they all wear the glow of having been invited to the White House to meet the president.

"It's not like the president doesn't have that much going on," said Mirle Shivashankar, their father. "To take the 15 minutes that he took, it was just overwhelming. When he walked out of the Oval Office through that door and here comes this tall figure; My God. I was pinching myself."