In the fourth grade, Saketh Sundar didn’t know what a spelling bee was. Now, he’s no longer a stranger to the competition.
Last month, Saketh, 13, was named one of the eight co-champions at the 92nd annual Scripps National Spelling Bee.
He made history, not only because he was among the unprecedented number of winners this year, but he is also the first national spelling bee champion to hail from Maryland.
The win marked the Clarksville Middle School eighth-grader’s final appearance in the national bee. This was Saketh’s fourth consecutive year competing, after tying for 19th last year, and placing 12th in 2017 and 46th in 2016.
“My spelling bee journey was a surreal experience,” Saketh said. “I’m really honored to [have] represent[ed] Howard County for the past four years.”
For all four years, Saketh was sponsored by the Howard County Library System. On Wednesday, the library system celebrated Saketh’s win with various Howard County officials at the Miller Branch library in Ellicott City.
Tonya Kennon, the CEO and president of the Howard library system, asked the local officials, “How do we spell champion?”
They responded by holding up signs that spelled S-A-K-E-T-H.
“On a personal note, I’m not just proud of you for your success, but I’m proud of you for your journey,” County Executive Calvin Ball said. “To go from 46th place to first place shows the perseverance, fortitude and drive you will use to be successful.”
Howard schools Superintendent Michael Martirano said, “It goes without question that we are so proud of you.”
“You are winning today and you will continue to win.”
Saketh received citations from Ball, the County Council, the Maryland General Assembly, Sen. Ben Cardin, Rep. Elijah Cummings, Rep. John Sarbanes and Comptroller Peter Franchot.
Del. Terri Hill joked, “Here’s another citation. I hope you have room on your wall.”
Saketh started in spelling bees in fourth grade, when he won the Bellows Springs Elementary School competition. He went on to the library system’s bee that year but lost.
The following year he won the library system’s bee and then kept on winning for the next three years.
In those first few years, Saketh would study for a few hours each day. But as the years went on and he was motivated to succeed, he upped his studying to four to five hours each weekday and between seven and eight hours on the weekends.
He would study the roots and language derivations of words, while also memorizing the spelling.
For this year’s Scripps competition, Saketh “wanted to go in and just have fun.”
“I wasn’t very stressed [and] my mind was clear,” he said.
To be crowned a champion, Saketh correctly spelled “bougainvillea” in the 20th and final round of the spelling bee.
“Bougainvillea” means “any of a genus of the four-o'clock family of ornamental tropical American woody vines and shrubs with brilliant purple or red floral bracts,” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
When asked what his favorite word is, Saketh smiled and said, “My winning word.”
The Friends & Foundation of the Howard County Library System, representing nearly 2,000 library donors, will plant three bougainvillea flowers at the Miller Branch library to celebrate Saketh’s accomplishment.
Narrowed down from 11 million students nationwide and after eight months of local competitions, 565 spellers took the stage at the 92nd Scripps National Bee last month at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center at National Harbor in Prince George’s County.
Eight spellers were named champions this year after Jacques Bailly, the spelling bee's official pronouncer, declared after round 17 that any speller left standing after the 20th round would be a winner.
Since winning the national bee, Saketh has been to New York City where he appeared on “Live with Kelly and Ryan,” went to a New York Yankees game and rang the New York Stock Exchange’s opening bell. He then traveled to Los Angeles where he was a guest on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”
The national bee experience not only has gained Saketh a lot of friends but also life experiences, he said. He has learned how to handle stress, maintain a work ethic, and handle both success and failure.
Saketh will attend next year’s bee as he and his fellow champions will take part in the opening ceremony.
Besides spelling, Saketh plays the violin, is involved in Science Olympiad in his school and is a Ravens fan. He said he hopes to become a gastroenterologist, a physician with training in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases of the gastrointestinal tract and liver.