An Indian-American teenager from New York has overcome a competition of 11 million children from eight countries, and a dread of German-derived words to win a highly popular spelling competition.
Arvind Mahankali correctly spelled the word, “knaidel”, a type of dumpling better known as matzah ball, emerging as champion of the 86th Scripps National Spelling Bee in the US state of Maryland on Thursday night.
Mahankali beat out 42 semifinalists to become the sixth youth of South Asian heritage to win the coveted title in the last six years, and also the first male champion since 2008.
He took home $30,000 in cash prize and $2,500 US savings bond along with a huge cup-shaped trophy.
“The German curse has turned into a German blessing,” he quipped after besting eight other finalists in a nail-biting finale to nationally televised competition that kicked off on Tuesday with 281 contestants from eight nations.
“I had begun to be a little wary of German words, but this year I prepared German words and I studied them, so when I got German words this year, I wasn’t worried,” Arvind said.
Mahankali, the eldest son of an IT consultant father and a physician mother, had placed ninth in 2010, then third in 2011 and 2012.
More often than not, it was obscure English words of Germanic origin that denied him victory, he said.
An aspiring physicist who admires Albert Einstein, Arvind said he would spend more time studying physics this summer now that he’s “retired” from the spelling bee.
He said he plans to save his winnings for college, where he hopes to get a doctorate degree in physics by the time he’s 23 years old.
Arvind’s family is from Hyderabad in southern India, and relatives who live there were watching live on television.
“At home, my dad used to chant Telegu poems from forward to backward and backward to forward, that kind of thing,” said Arvind’s father, Srinivas.
“We value language a lot…Wealth is fickle, but education is number one”.
Pranav Sivakumar, who like Arvind rarely appeared flustered onstage, finished second. The 13-year-old from the US state of Illinois, was tripped up by “cyanophycean”, the word for a blue-green alga.
New Yorker Sriram Hathwar, 13, finished third.
The spelling competition has been an American institution for decades. It has even spawned a documentary, “Spellbound” about the 1999 winner Nupur Lala. [Al Jazeera]