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Learning, not just winning, was goal at spelling bee

Special to The Olathe News

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Winning isn’t everything for Vanya Shivashankar.

The 10-year-old Olathe girl almost made it to the finals at the Scripps National Spelling Bee last week, but she stumbled on a fish. A “pejerrey,” to be exact.

The error, which cut her from the competition during the third round of semi-finals, couldn’t wipe the smile off her face.

“When I heard the word, I knew I hadn’t studied it but I gave it my best shot,” said Vanya, who recently finished fifth grade at Regency Place Elementary School. “I’m so happy and excited I made it this far. I had so much fun while in Washington, D.C., meeting new friends and spending time with my family in museums.”

Vanya, who was sponsored by The Olathe News, is determined to earn her spot in the national competition again next year so she can take home the title. If her dream comes true, she will be following in the footsteps of her older sister, Kavya, who won the championship in 2009.

Vanya isn’t letting “pejerrey” get the best of her, however. She plans to keep studying like she always does: by understanding global languages, not memorizing the dictionary.

After all, she said, the history behind each word teaches you how to spell them and reveals how to spell others.

Her father is pleased by her comprehensive approach to the spelling bee.

“She came across three or four other words in that competition she didn’t know but she spelled correctly simply because she figured them out knowing the definition or background,” said Mirle Shivashankar. “That is a skill which will help her with anything she wants to do in the future.”

This year marked the sixth time Shivashankar has had a daughter in the national spelling bee. He feels like the luckiest dad in the world.

“Just being in an environment with other spellers and their families — who all have the same mentality — is invaluable,” he said. “We cherish it every time we go.”

He was especially impressed by Vanya’s grace during the entire competition. The other contestants adored his bubbly younger daughter and one adult even took him aside to express admiration at her good sportsmanship.

“Spelling bees are not just about spelling anymore; you need to be able to handle the lights and stage and spell correctly while everyone is watching,” Shivashankar said. “There is a maturity these kids need to have to handle all the extras.”

He is thrilled Vanya made it to 10th place in the competition this year. He believes the whole Kansas City area — not only her family — is proud of her.

And, he added with a laugh, she will never forget how to spell “pejerrey.”

“The word looks easy to us now, after studying, but at the time, we had never heard of it,” he said. “I’m so proud because she spelled it the way she thought it should have been at the time. You really can’t ask for anything more.”

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