Snehaa Ganesh Kumar nearly broke down on Wednesday when she correctly spelled “opificer” and finally won the California Central Valley Spelling Bee four years after first trying for the title as a third-grader.
Now a seventh-grader at Folsom Middle School, Ganesh Kumar will compete against other master spellers in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in May.
Her winning word, opificer, means an artisan, workman or maker.
The competition was tough, with students from grades three through eight spelling out words like “oviparous” and “navicular.” More than half of the students remained on stage after round three, which spelling bee director Molly Evangelisti said was unusual.
A rare controversy erupted in the first round, when a student who was bounced out of the contest for misspelling the word “lithe” was allowed back in after the judges decided he could have misheard it as “live.”
The second-place winner was seventh-grader Spencer Holt from Wilson C. Riles Middle School in Roseville. This was his first spelling bee. Also on stage was two-time former champion Aditya Mishra, who took fourth place.
To participate in the 32nd annual Central Valley Spelling Bee, the 61 competing students had to win their school spelling bees in one of the nine counties included in the region. They then had to pass a written spelling bee.
Evangelisti, director of the bee since the beginning, said about 150 students took the written test this year. More than 200,000 students were eligible to participate in the bee, which is sponsored by The Sacramento Bee, Shriners Hospitals for Children Northern California, Sierra Health Foundation, the Sacramento Kings and Rancho Costa Verde.
“It’s exciting to know I’m one of the best in the state,” Ganesh Kumar, 12, told the audience after she received her trophy.
She looked like she might pass out in the beat of silence after she finished spelling “opificer” and before pronouncer Bob Nathan told her she had spelled it correctly. Unlike the other words she had gotten during the competition, she didn’t already know its spelling. She used her vast knowledge of language to figure it out.
“I think about the pronunciation and the vowel sounds in the word,” she said. “The first letter was where I had some doubt. It’s Latin so I knew it was an ‘f’, not a ‘ph’.”
Ganesh Kumar studied for at least an hour every day to prepare for the bee, and even longer on the weekends. An avid reader, she looks up every unknown word she encounters and adds them to a list she practices every day. She also reads random words in the dictionary and memorizes their roots and their languages of origin.
Being able to break words down into their components and recognizing language patterns are key skills to being successful at the national bee, Evangelisti said.
She said that’s how the regional event bridges the gap between the school bees and the national level – school bees are won mostly through memorization, whereas students at the national bee have to deal with many words they’ve never seen or heard before.
“Some of these kids, it’s a matter of knowing the word or knowing how to figure it out,” Evangelisti said. “They’re like little puzzles you have to take apart.”
She said it was exciting to see Ganesh Kumar win after all the years she’s been in the bee.
“It was great seeing her win and accomplish a goal she’s had since the third grade,” Evangelisti said, adding that’s what she likes about running the regional bee year after year.
“It’s old fashioned and it gives back to the community,” she said. “And it gives students the opportunity to win.”
Ganesh Kumar’s mother, Vijaya Ganesh Kumar, said her daughter has also won her school’s Spanish spelling bee four times and received recognition from the mayor of Folsom, the Sacramento County superintendent of schools and Sen. Barbara Boxer for her spelling accomplishments.
“It takes a lot of commitment,” Vijaya Ganesh Kumar said. “And she does it on her own. In D.C. we’ll try to make it as far as possible. That’s all you can do.”
It’s been 25 years since Sacramento speller Rageshree Ramachandran won the national spelling bee.
Call The Bee’s Ellen Garrison at (916) 321-1006