U.S. News

03.22.13

Queens Phenom Goes for Redemption at National Spelling Bee Finals

Presa, Jugendstil, and schwannoma were the words that knocked a young phenom out of the last three National Spelling Bees. Will this year spell redemption? Michael Daly reports. (Take our quiz: Can you spot the seven spelling errors in this story?*)

Arvind Mahankali of Queens was not yet of kindergarden age when he chanced to see the National Spelling Bee finals on television.

“He said, ‘I want to be there on TV!’” recalls his father, Srinnas Mahankali. “He started meticulusly writing down the words. I said, ‘OK, work hard for it.’”

Now 13, Arvind has acheived his goal three times over and will now be heading to the nationals for a fourth time at the end of May.

He amazed everybody except himself back in 2010, when he won his class bee, then his school bee, and then the Queens bee and then became one of the two winners of the citywide bee. He was just 9 years old, a true spelling phenom.

“I didn’t expect he would win,” the father says. “He was studying hard, but not like I imagine it should be.”

The father was speaking as someone who had been raised in India by very strict parents.

“I thought I had to study 100 percent,” recalls the father, a software engineer. “No TV at all.”

The American-born Arvind had discovered there were things he liked to watch in addition to spelling bees. “He said, ‘No, watching TV will not stop me,’” the father recalls. “He is so sure of himself.”

And then he was on TV in the finals, just as he had hoped since his preschool years. The father concluded that when Arvind did study, he must have given it his all.

“I think he focused very much,” the father says. ”He really studied.”

Arvind arrived at the finals in Washington, D.C. unshakably sure of victory. “He took it for granted he would win,” his father says.

“No, watching TV will not stop me.”

He was nine places from triumph when he stumbled on the word for a symbol used in music to indicate the entry of each part in a round or canon. Arvind figured the word must have a Latin root.

“P-R-A-S-A.”

But the word was derived from the Italian. Arvind learned the hardest way possible that the correct spelling was P-R-E-S-A. The small word translated to a huge disapointment.

“He took it a little hard,” the father says. “I told him. ‘It’s excellent, ninth. It’s not a small thing. You did very well.’”

Arvind remained determined to win and he was certain he would when he again made it to the finals the following year. He was one of the final three contestants of 2011 when he stumbled on a German word meaning a youthful art style: “Jugendstil,” deceptively pronounced ju-gand-stil. He came in third.

“It was so close,” the father says.

With the next academic year, Arvind went from a small Montessori school to a big junior high and suddenly found himself with considerably more homework. He was not left with much time to study spelling, but he once again made it to the finals.

As the bee approached, Anderson Cooper’s talk show invited Arvind to a television face-off. “Anderson’s Spelling Bee Challenge” began with Arvind correctly spelling “camaraderie.” Cooper was then faced with a word meaning easily shaped and bent.

“M-a-l-i-a-b-l-e,” said Cooper, who went to Yale.

“M-a-l-l-e-a-b-l-e,” said Arvind, who wants to go to Harvard.

“Two l’s?” Cooper marveled when Arvind proved correct.

Arvind went on to reach the top three at the national finals once again. And once again he was stimyed by a German word, “schwannoma,” all the more tricky spellingwise because it us a type of tumor named after the scientist who discovered it.

“Names can be anything,” the father says.

Video screenshot

Watch Arvind Mahankali go toe to toe with Anderson Cooper.

Arvind again finished in third place. The father was joined by the mother, a phycisian, in suggesting Arvind try focusing on something new.

“We kind of said, ‘Let’s do something else,’” the father reports. “He said, ‘No, I want to get it. Come on.’ He really wants to do it.”

On Wednesday, Arvind was at the citywide finals for the fourth straight year, his last, because he is now 13 and will age out. The bee started with 66 contestants, and it came down to Arvind and Russell Leung, who is just 10. Leung gave Arvind a very early sense of what it is like to have youth gaining on you.

“Somebody said, ‘Maybe he’s the next Arvind,’” the father says.

Leung was tripped up by “irretrievably.” Arvind won with “rabbinic.” He now goes on to the nationals along with the winner of the other session of the citywide bee, 11-year-old Sai Vishidhi Chandrasekhar, also from Queens.

As the fourth and last appearance at the finals approaches, Arvind’s father reports that his son is has managed to retain his self-confidance while taking a more balanced view of the possible outcome. He is proving to be phenom in maturity as well as spelling. “He’s prepared for the eventuality of loss,” says the father, who adds, “That’s a good thing, I think.”

A younger Mahankali son, 9-year-old Siasy, won a big spelling bee the other day, but his main aspiration lies elsewhere.

“He wants to be a tennis pro,” the father says. “He thinks he can make a lot money that way.”

*Answer key (spelling errors—at least that we know of): kindergarden, meticulusly, acheived, disapointment, stimyed, phycisian, self-confidance