- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 24, 2016

With his backwards ball cap, gray tennis shoes and practiced aloofness, Amrith Samuel, 12, looks almost too cool to spell. But if his precocity can match his swagger, Amrith could become next celebrity of Olathe, Kansas.

“I feel like I have big shoes to fill,” said the seventh-grader, who tops off at almost 4 feet tall.

Amrith is competing against 273 other under-15-year-olds in this year’s Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee. But his responsibilities include more than w-o-r-d-s. At the end of the three-day bee on Thursday, he will return to the spellers farm of Olathe — hometown of last year’s national champion, Vanya Shivashankar.

Vanya correctly spelled “scherenschnitte” in the 2015 final round, claiming half the crown. The eighth-grader shared last year’s championship title with Gokul Venkatachalam, a 14-year-old from Chesterfield, Missouri.

“I was like, ‘finally!’” said Amrith, referring to last year’s outcome. “She’s been there every year in our spelling bee, and I had to go against her.”

To reach the nationals, Amrith had to win the Olathe district spelling bee in February. This was the first year he took home the trophy — Vanya won in 2014 and 2015. Her sister, Kavya, began Olathe’s winning streak when she correctly spelled “Laodicean” in the 2009 final round. If Amrith places in the nationals, he would be the third from Olathe to score the prize of $40,000 and dozens of reference books.

Tuesday morning, Amrith completed a preliminary spelling and vocabulary test with all the other contestants. Wednesday, there are two more preliminaries and one final round. Students who misspell a word are disqualified. The final trophy will be awarded Thursday evening.

To prepare for the week’s competition, Amrith studied word patterns and read the dictionary regularly — common practice for other logophiles in the bee.

Veronica Goveas, 13, is fluent in the Indian language Malayalam, and studied word roots to learn their meanings and familiarize herself with their spellings. She spent at least half an hour almost every day learning words. Schoolwork, dance, trumpet, soccer, church and other extracurricular activities occupied most of her free time.

“Spelling is more of a hobby,” said the seventh-grader from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Veronica is not the only multitalented speller staying at the Gaylord Resort and Convention Center this week. Abigail Worstell, 13, of Marietta, Ohio, calls herself a “major music and band person.” She plays baritone trombone, bassoon, piano, trumpet and French horn — in addition to taking nightly spelling quizzes. Her mother, Kristin, said the schedule is “very stressful.”

“You want her to do well,” Mrs. Worstell said. “It’s stressful, just working with the words. That’s why we limit [her] to, like, an hour.”

Awash in the intensity of the competition, many parents at the bee are as enthusiastic about the experience as their children.

Deborah Komatsu of Culver City, California, clutched her husband’s hand as their 13-year-old son, Cooper, spelled “decorous” and “reticent” in the preliminary round.

“This year, he’s really taken charge of his spelling. It was really exciting to see him do it,” Mrs. Komatsu said. “But studying is lonely.”

For the Komatsus, this bee is part of a legacy: Cooper’s grandfather competed in the 1955 nationals. That’s why Mrs. Komatsu offered to help her eighth-grade son master Greek and Latin roots during his recent five-hour study sessions.

“Studying pays off,” said Cooper, who won the North American School Scrabble Championship last month. “I kind of came to enjoy [this]. Because if I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t be good.”

Children from all over the U.S. and other countries are hoping to prove their proficiency this week. Like his fellow contestants, Amrith feels “nervous and excited” knowing the gravity of the competition.

“I need to do really well,” said Amrith. “[It’s] like so close but so far away. Just one letter, if you slip on one letter, you’re done.”

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