Folsom student ties for fourth at National Spelling Bee

Snehaa Ganesh Kumar, 12, of Folsom, correctly spells her second word of the preliminaries, “pirarucu,” a type of fish found in the rivers of South America.
Snehaa Ganesh Kumar, 12, of Folsom, correctly spells her second word of the preliminaries, “pirarucu,” a type of fish found in the rivers of South America. Medill News Service

The final night of the Scripps National Spelling Bee was packed with repeat competitors and potential dynasties, but no one saw Snehaa Ganesh Kumar advancing as far as she did.

The Folsom Middle School seventh-grader tied for fourth place with her correct spelling of “bouillabaisse” and “Hippocrene.”

Snehaa sailed through the preliminaries and semifinals on Wednesday and Thursday. Though slightly less visible than some of the other known contenders, Snehaa proved a diligent competitor.

“It was really good for the first time here and to get fourth is really great,” said Snehaa, 12, of Folsom.

Gokul Venkatachalam of Chesterfield, Mo., and Vanya Shivashankar of Olathe, Kan., shared the overall title.

Snehaa, 12, survived two earlier rounds of the championship finals, securing her place as the highest Sacramento-area finisher since Rageshree Ramachandran won the 1988 competition.

Her performance marked the first time that a Sacramento-area student has reached the prime-time finals in the National Spelling Bee’s recent era, according to Molly Evangelisti, director of the California Central Valley Spelling Bee that Snehaa won in March. She was the only Californian to reach the finals.

Vijaya Ganesh Kumar, Snehaa’s mother, who’s been a part of her daughter’s journey at the national bee, said she couldn’t be prouder of how Snehaa fared.

“I mean fourth in 11 million,” said Ganesh Kumar, hugging her daughter as she sat next to her watching the rest of the bee. “She did really good.”

Snehaa’s first word of the championship finals, “bouillabaisse,” is a traditional soup from southern France.

Her second word was “Hippocrene,” a source of poetic inspiration in ancient Greek mythology, taken from the eponymous spring of Mount Helicon.

But her third word, “oflag,” was the one that ended her run for the national title. It means a German prison camp for officers.

Snehaa approached the microphone as just five other spellers remained in their seats behind her.

She received her word and repeated it. She asked for the definition, the language of origin and for it to be used in a sentence, all before beginning to spell.

“Oflag,” began Snehaa. “A-U-F-L-A-H-G.”

Although the incorrect spelling disqualified her from the title, Snehaa’s achievements still put her in an elite group ahead of 11 million other spellers who began the race for the national spelling bee with classroom-level competitions in the fall.

She entered Thursday as one of 49 semifinalists out of a field of 285 spellers. The competition winnowed the field through a combination of scores on a written test taken Wednesday night and two rounds of oral spelling Thursday morning.

On Thursday during the semifinals, Snehaa looked stumped trying to spell gibus, a man’s collapsible top hat, also called an opera hat. Snehaa asked for the language of origin (French), a repeat reading of the word, the part of speech and use of gibus in a sentence.

Then she appeared to guess at the spelling, seemingly pulling it out of a hat like a magician with a rabbit.

Snehaa’s fourth-place finish was the highest by a local student since Anvita Mishra tied for ninth place in 2010. Other top-10 Sacramento students include ex-champion Ramachandran, a Churchill Middle School student, and Brendan Chan, a Sutter Middle School student who tied for seventh place in 2001.

Snehaa was sponsored at the national competition by The Sacramento Bee. She prepared by studying two hours each weekday and five hours on the weekends.

According to a short biography provided by the national bee, Snehaa is interested in ancient Greek history, culture and mythology. She enjoys drawing, crafting jewelry, writing stories, playing the violin and dancing.

The seventh-grader has performed jazz, contemporary dance and ballet. She competed in a Spanish spelling bee when she was a kindergartner.

The spellers in the competition ranged in age from 9 to 15 years old, but most of them are between the ages of 12 and 14.

Three of the spellers had siblings who have previously won the spelling bee.

The Bee’s Bill Lindelof contributed to this report.