SILVER SPRING – After Saketh Sundar correctly spelled “bougainvillea” to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee, he said: “It was just surreal. I wanted to win the national bee ever since fifth grade, but I never thought I would.”
The 13-year-old eighth grader at Clarksville Middle School in Columbia was one of eight spellers out of a field of 562 to win. More important, he is the first-ever winner from Maryland in the 92-year history of the national contest.
“That was my originally my inspiration,” he said, following his fourth appearance at the bee. “Every year, when I noticed I was the only one, I thought I need to make Maryland proud. That was my motivation.”
In 2016, the young man tied for 46th place. The following year, he tied for 12th place, and last year, in another tie, he heard the ding of the bell, meaning he incorrectly spelled his word, in the 19th round.
Hearing the bell, “It’s the worst thing you can hear as a speller,” Sundar said.
Sundar worked hard to earn his $50,000 prize. Weekdays, he studied spelling three to four hours daily. On the weekends, he studied six to seven hours. As the time for the bee drew near, he upped his weekend studies to eight to 10 hours a day.
Sometimes he studied root patterns. Other times, his mom tested him, or he went through a list of words and typed them up.
Weekly, he had a professional spelling coach to assist him through FaceTime.
Still, Sundar said, there is a lot of luck involved, “You could know everyone else’s word, but not yours.”
He keeps going, because, as he said: “I just love the feeling of standing on stage spelling the words. I just love standing on the stage.”
Anyone hoping to lift that spelling trophy could be just as successful, he said.
“Just don’t think that being a good speller is impossible. If you study very hard, you can be good,” Sundar said.
The national bee has had two champions before, but never eight.
The spellers entered the 20th round of increasingly harder and more-obscure words, knowing it was the last round. If they got their word right, they would be crowned champion.
All eight students who made it to the 20th round successfully spelled their word.
While some may have been disappointed that they were not first among eight, Sundar is not one of them.
During his time at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor from May 26 to May 31, he became friends with his rivals.
“I really like sharing with everyone. Most of the people are already my friends,” he said.
He did not think it would have been fair to proceed past 20 rounds, because that is how it’s been done in the past, he said, adding, “I was very exhausted.”
The very next day, the winners appeared on several morning talk shows. Then it was off to New York, where they appeared on Kelly and Ryan and threw the first pitch at a New York Yankees game. The event was ceremonial, enabling all eight to hurl the ball.
Then it was on to California, where they appeared on the Jimmy Kimmel Live show.
When not spelling or touring the country, Sundar plays the violin, watches Ted Talks and roots for the Baltimore Ravens. He particularly admires Ravens’ kicker Justin Tucker, who, when he heard Sundar was a fan, tweeted out, “I’ll be pulling for you.”
Sundar, an only child, hopes one day to become a gastroenterologist and perhaps one day to find a cure for his father’s stomach ailments.
His father, Nathikudi Sundar, said he is “really proud” and also a little surprised that his son did so well.
“I didn’t expect him to win,” his father said. “This competition is real cutthroat.”
Last year, when his son didn’t do as well, “he was upset. I told him he didn’t have to do it again,” but he insisted, Nathikudi Sundar said.
He spoke highly of the experience, noting his son learned he could not do well one year and come back to win the next, and he also learned the value of friendship.
“All eight spellers were rooting for each other. The bee is so much more than spelling,” he said.
Saketh Sundar’s days of spelling are over. “I’m not going to keep spelling,” he said, noting that in Maryland and the surrounding states, there aren’t spelling competitions after middle school.
Instead, he hopes to attend the national bee as a volunteer and find other ways to compete on the stage, perhaps in math or science competitions.