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Olathe 11-Year-Old Continues Family’s Spelling Dynasty In Washington, D.C.

Mark Bowen
Scripps National Spelling Bee

Olathe’s own Vanya Shivashankar is returning from Washington, D.C. this week after competing at the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee, just a few years after her older sister Kavya took first prize at the competition.

Shivashankar, an 11-year-old sixth-grader who attends California Trail Middle School in Olathe, took fifth place in a competition that began with more than 11 million spellers from around the world. Two hundred eighty-one of them made it to Washington. She was one of 12 to compete in the final round, successfully spelling words like "horologium," "michelangelesque," and "bilboquet."

But Vanya says tying for fifth place will not discourage her from competing next year; after all, she has a family legacy to uphold. Her older sister Kavya, the winner of the Bee in 2009, was in Washington watching her younger sister compete.

“It was really exciting. It’s a completely different experience to be sitting in the audience and watching her,” Kavya said. “It’s actually more nerve-wracking than being on stage myself, because I’m really nervous for her and nervous about what word she’s going to get, how she’s doing. I know she’s having a great time on stage, and she’s making jokes and having fun, but I just really can’t help being nervous.”

Vanya was one of two spellers in the final rounds of this year’s Bee to have an older sibling who had competed in years past. Though, she says that legacy hasn’t brought on any extra pressure.

“I think it’s really cool that my sister won in 2009, and I really just want to do my best and win one day,” Vanya said. “[Kavya] always tells me to treasure to the experience of being on stage, because that’s really the most important thing; to have fun on stage and to do your best.”

Kavya also played a crucial role in helping her younger sister prepare for competition – mainly learning root words. Over the years, the two have developed a similar style when it comes to piecing together a word.

Credit Mark Bowen / Scripps National Spelling Bee
Scripps National Spelling Bee
Vanya Shivashankar, right, talks with older sister Kavya after the final round of the 2013 Scripps national Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, May 30, 2013. Kavya, who helped coach Vanya for this year's competition, won the Bee in 2009.

“For the most part we have a similar technique in the sense that we write on our palms and visualize the word, and ask all the questions to make sure we have all the information,” Kavya said.

But a similar technique doesn’t mean that Vanya can’t bring a new personality to the Bee. Her vivacious personality even caught the attention of the ESPN (which broadcasts the national competition) commentators this year.

“I think she brings a different personality on stage,” Kavya added. “She’s more ebullient, and she’s very enthusiastic, and I think everyone around her smiles just looking at her because you can just see her passion and her excitement on stage.”

Vanya made her first national television debut on the spelling scene in 2006, when she was only 4-years-old, watching her sister compete, catching the attention of the camera when she spelt the word “banana.”

Sylvia Maria Gross is storytelling editor at KCUR 89.3. Reach her on Twitter @pubradiosly.
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