Samhita Kumar won her way to Washington, D.C. Wednesday with the word “tuatara,” – the name of a New Zealand reptile – after a long-fought battle with 60 other local students in the California Central Valley Spelling Bee.
The spellers competed at the Scottish Rite Masonic Center in front of family, teachers and classmates in hopes of advancing to the Scripps National Spelling Bee in May. Kumar, a sixth-grader at Winston Churchill Middle School, said her favorite part is that no matter how much you study and practice there’s always a luck factor – something she said helped her win the final round.
“I was just hoping I would get a word I knew and be able to spell it,” Kumar said. “I made my best guess and hoped it was right.”
This is Kumar’s third year in the regional competition. She studies with her father, her “spell coach,” every day and reviews words over the breaks during the competition as well, she said. She said she plans to increase her studying in the coming months to prepare for the national competition in May.
In order to compete in the Central Valley bee, spellers have to go through multiple rounds of spelling competitions: in their classrooms, in their schools, and then in a written spelling bee before qualifying for the Central Valley bee. Over 200,000 students are eligible to compete in the competition each year. Wednesday’s competition was sponsored by The Sacramento Bee, Shriner’s Hospitals, Sierra Health Foundation, News in Education, the Sacramento River Cats and the Sacramento Kings.
“All the spellers are here today because they’re dedicated,” said Spelling Bee director Molly Evangelisti. “They’ve been working hard the past few months and now they’re here for their cause.”
The dedicated group of third- to eighth-graders competed for over five hours on stage. There was a rare review that stopped the competition briefly in the fifth round, when judges decided that speller Fiona McCulloch was led astray when she was told her pronunciation of the word “crostini,” which she spelled ‘crustini,’ was correct. She was put back into the competition and became one of the competition’s 10 finalists.
Words ranged from “sushi” and “gondola” in the first round to “efflorescence” and “maillot” in later rounds, with strike-outs happening throughout. The most tension came at the end, when Kumar won the contest after a 13-round faceoff with fellow speller Morgana Kato, a fifth-grader from Sierra Oaks Elementary School in Sacramento.
In order to win in the final round, spellers could spell words that their competitor got incorrect, and had to spell two words right in a row to win. The two students went back and forth on words like “tryptophan,” “pneumatocele” and “chopine” before Kumar finally secured her win with “blastema,” a cell mass capable of forming various organs and tissues, followed by the winning word “tuatara.”
“It was a really fierce competition at the end there,” Evangelesti said. “I truly wasn’t sure who would win.”
Snehaa Ganesh Kumar, the contest winner in 2015 and 2016, placed third in the Scripps National Spelling Bee last year, but she was too old to compete this year. Rageshree Ramachandran was the last Sacramento speller to win the national bee in 1988.
Next up for Kumar is the national competition, where she will compete with fellow spellers across the nation in a written semifinal, and possibly the televised National Spelling Bee finals.
“I’m just excited that I’m going to Washington, so I’m going to learn more words and do well there,” Kumar said.