After more than four hours onstage at the Howard County Library System Spelling Bee, a single word — boudin, a Cajun type of blood sausage — stood between Saketh Sundar and victory.
Not that he was rattled.
“I had read the word before,” said Saketh, a seventh-grader at Clarksville Middle School. “My mom had asked me to spell it before in practice.”
Saketh, 12, spelled the word correctly at the March 16 competition, notching his third county bee win in three years and securing a ticket to the Scripps National Spelling Bee in May. He’s the first three-peat county bee champion in the competition’s 14-year history, and is also no stranger to the national bee, where he placed 12th last year.
No Howard County student has ever made it farther, but Saketh hopes to improve on his standing this year.
“I just want to give it my best and do better than last time,” he said.
Saketh, a well-spoken kid with glasses and dark hair, has a handful of extra-curricular activities outside of spelling.
“I play the violin and I play basketball,” he said. “I also participate in other academic competitions, like Science Olympiad and geography bee.”
But language is his first love. It has been since he was tiny, according to his father, Sundar Nathikudi.
“I was kind of surprised, because I myself am not a good pronouncer. Even in the first grade he would come home and say, ‘My teacher wrote the spelling wrong,’” Nathikudi said. “He cares about that, which was surprising at that age. I think that’s how it got started.”
As a young child, Saketh was an avid reader who would consult the dictionary when a book contained a word he hadn’t seen before. His mom took notice, he said, and encouraged him to participate in the school-wide spelling bee when he was in fourth grade.
“I won the school-wide bee, and that’s how I got interested in spelling,” he said.
The HCLS spelling bee is open to Howard County students in fourth through eighth grade who win their school-wide bees. The winner of the county competition goes on to the national bee, armed with sponsorship cash, including spending money and the opportunity to ride to the competition in a limousine, according to Kelli Shimabukuro, community education and partnerships coordinator for the library system and the founder of the county bee.
(Saketh’s parents, she added, have always declined the limo ride.)
That first year, Saketh studied a bit before the county bee, but upped his preparation after winning. Today, he studies for two to three hours on weekdays and between four and five hours on the weekends.
“Me and my mom go through the dictionary. We find some hard words that they could use in the national spelling bee, and my mom and dad quiz me,” he said. “It’s not just memorizing the words, it’s also learning the language patterns. So I go through each language and learn how each word is spelled in each language.”
Language patterns are key, as spellers in the national bee are permitted to ask for the country of origin of any word they’re given. The answer can provide important clues to the proper spelling. (For example, in Dutch, the “ooh” sound is spelled “-oe.”)
It’s hard work, but it’s also fun, Saketh said.
“I like learning about the words and their roots and the languages,” he said. “My favorite word is ‘Llullaillaco,’ because it helps me remember the Spanish rules. Also, it’s kind of fun to say.”
Plus, making it to the finals of the Scripps bee has its perks. To get there, Saketh must past a preliminary round that includes a spelling and vocabulary test as well as several turns spelling words on stage. No more than the top 50 spellers move on to the finals, which are nationally televised.
During one of Saketh’s televised turns last year, ESPN placed a factoid on the screen: Saketh’s favorite athlete is Ravens placekicker Justin Tucker. Tucker took notice.
Beyond making the finals, the tweet was the coolest thing to happen during the bee, Saketh said.
“Kicking is kind of like spelling,” he said. “It’s a one-person sport, you need accuracy, you need to be determined. It also puts a lot of pressure on you.”
The bee continually draws upwards of a million viewers, an enduring appeal that Shimabukuro attributes to the seeming accessibility of the competition.
“I feel they are a great equalizer. No matter who you are, race, ethnicity, social class, geographic location, athlete or whiz kid, it's a level playing field, everyone has the same opportunity,” she said. “It is a matter of skill, talent and chance.”
And as any dedicated watcher can attest, watching the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee is not an entirely passive experience. It’s tense and stressful and filled with secondhand anxiety — significantly more so in person when the speller in question is your child, Nathikudi said.
“When he’s on the stage he’s the one that’s going to spell the word, but that two minutes is nerve-wracking for my wife and me,” he said. “Once he spells the word, you get relief, but it only lasts until the next time he comes back. You have to use those moments to relax yourself.”
To keep calm onstage, Saketh does his best to block out the noise around him.
“If you listen to other people’s words, sometimes you get more stressed,” he said. “If I get really stressed, I just shut down and I don’t listen to the words, because I get stressed if I don’t know one of them. I just be calm, and tell myself everything’s going to be OK and that I’m going to spell my next word right.”
Leading up to the bee, Saketh’s parents do their best to stress that losing is OK, Nathikudi said.
“The main thing for us is how to fail gracefully,” he said. “To understand that failing is life and you have to handle it. A lot of kids don’t want to get in there because they’re afraid of failure. It would be awesome if he wins, but we also understand there’s like 470,000 words in the dictionary. You can’t know it all. You are going to leave the stage by one word you don’t know. We go in wishing we would win but we always just expect he does his best.”
That’s the main goal, Saketh agreed.
“I was happy to make it that far last year, but I was kind of sad because I knew most of the words in the round I got out in. But I have two more years, and lots of other good spellers got out, too,” he said. “I just want to improve my ranking from last time, and I just want to do my best.”