Wednesday, June 2, 2010

All in the family?...the Shivashankar sisters

Olathe Spelling Bee champ, Vanya Shivashankar, left, is in Washington D.C., this week to compete in the 2010 Scripps National Spelling Bee, following in her sister Kavya Shivashankar’s footsteps. Kavya won the national spelling bee last year.

Her sister was successful...why not her.

"Olathe family is back at the national spelling bee, this time with Vanya, 8"


Dawn Bormann

June 1st, 2010

The Kansas City Star

Kavya Shivashankar stole the hearts of Kansas Citians and the world when she won the 2009 Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Well, get ready for Act 2.

Meet Vanya Shivashankar — Kavya’s 4-foot tall little sister. The 8-year-old will be the youngest contestant at the 2010 Scripps bee, which starts today. It’s Vanya’s first time, but she’s hardly a rookie.

The vivacious Olathe youngster has been hamming it up in the Scripps bee crowd since she was 4. While Kavya was focused on stage, Vanya was her cheerleader and ambassador in the crowd.

“She was a social bee … making friends and talking to people,” said Kavya, 14.

TV cameras often gravitated toward the little sister, who had a ball during breaks from the intense competition. A scrapbook photo shows the youngster being carried by a bee pronouncer one year.

But now it’s Vanya’s turn to shine on stage. And she is focused on her goal.

“I want to be just like my sister,” Vanya said proudly with a smile that would melt even the most hardened adult.

As for her chances to win this year, the elementary student is realistic.

“It’s a possibility, but no,” Vanya said matter-of-factly.

Vanya is going to Washington with all intentions to win the bee, but she knows it’s her first year and there are others with more experience. If she wins, the sisters would be the first siblings to win the top prize.

“I just want to try my best this year,” said Vanya, who is sponsored by The Olathe News.

The 2010 Scripps spellers range in age from 8 to 15 years old, but 80 percent are between the ages of 12 and 14, according to Scripps. Many contestants will tower over the petite girl, who will enter the fourth grade at Regency Place Elementary in August.

“She’s going to be so tiny. I don’t know how she’s going to reach the microphone,” said her father, Mirle Shivashankar.

If Vanya is intimidated by the competition, few would know.

“She’s too young to be nervous. She’s seen that stage,” her father said.

In fact, Vanya said she is most excited to meet other contestants and reconnect with bee families.

“We all encourage each other,” Vanya said.

The process isn’t nearly as fierce as it may look on TV.

“It’s a competition but we all understand it’s not a competition with each other. It’s against the dictionary,” Mirle Shivashankar said. “Some kids get out of the spelling bee and sit down and cheer for others.”

Yet Vanya does have some clear advantages over the other 272 spellers, including three others from the Kansas City area. For starters, she’s been there before and she studied alongside the reigning champion. Vanya watched and learned as her father and Kavya studied together for years. Now Kavya also helps tutor her little sister.

Mirle and Sandy Shivashankar said if there is a family dynasty, it wasn’t instigated by them. Years ago they agreed to help Kavya when she declared her dream of bringing home the Scripps trophy. The girls quickly became captivated with “bee week.”

“It’s not just about spelling. It is a lot of fun,” their father explained. “You have 300 families with the same interests.”

At one time Kavya memorized words, but the family soon realized there was little emotional, let alone educational, value in that process. They changed their approach and instead taught their children to learn root words. Then it became fun for them to unravel unfamiliar words.

“It’s not enjoyable if it’s memorizing,” her father said.

In addition, the girls understand the words and can use the knowledge for various subjects in school. Vanya wants to be a cardiac surgeon and Kavya wants to be a neurosurgeon.

“The words are going to be used in her life,” Mirle Shivashankar said. “There’s a lot more take-away. It’s not just spelling.”

Refining that technique means that Vanya is perhaps more prepared than Kavya was at her first Scripps bee.

“Kavya had a much bigger vocabulary at 10, but Vanya has the fundamentals,” Mirle Shivashankar said. “So she can handle new words much better.”

Yet Vanya’s parents are careful not to force the process on their girls. School work takes priority. Vanya’s parents have kept her study sessions short.

“She can’t focus for that long. She’s too young. … It all has to be balanced,” her father said.

The girls thrive on learning, but they also make time for friends and play.

“I like acting and singing and dancing,” Vanya said. “I like riding my bike, swimming and playing piano.”

Having well rounded children is important, Sandy Shivashankar said.

“We want them to be good citizens,” she said.

It turns out that one especially notable American was paying attention to the family’s accomplishments. The Shivashankar family fielded a call Tuesday from the White House. President Barack Obama has asked to meet Kavya, the 2009 bee winner, and her family on Thursday.

Despite all her hard work, Vanya was hardly a shoo-in to win the local bee, which was especially intense this year.

Turns out, Kavya’s work inspired many other Olathe students. This was the first time Kavya wasn’t there to compete in the four-year history of the local bee.

“There were about five kids and Vanya that were very good. They were all national-caliber kids in my opinion,” Mirle Shivashankar said.

Kavya can no longer compete, but she’s encouraged her sister to enjoy every minute.

For her part, Vanya’s love for her older sister is evident in her support, body language and even her favorite word.

The word means poetic composition and appears on Scripps’ official word list. “It’s Kavya.”

The family’s last name isn’t on the list for now, but it’s fair to say that it isn’t as difficult for Scripps officials to pronounce as it was a few years ago.

“They used to butcher it,” said Vanya, who also happens to be a stickler for pronunciation.

Other area contestants:

Vanya Shivashankar isn’t the only local speller to cheer on during the Scripps bee this year. Also competing are:

Seth Acup, 14, Heartland Christian School, Belton

Jordan Gabriella Hoffman, 12, Highland Park Elementary School, Lee’s Summit

Chloe X. Granger, 14, Lakeview Middle School, Kansas City

Times and dates:

The bee starts today and continues through Friday. Today all spellers will take the round one test. On Thursday all spellers will participate in rounds two and three. Round three will be shown live on ESPN3, 12:15 to 4:15 p.m. Thursday. Officials will then determine semifinalists based on points earned in the preliminary rounds. No more than 50 spellers will be selected as semifinalists. Semifinals will air live on ESPN from 9 a.m. to noon Friday. The finals will be shown live on ABC, 7 to 9 p.m., Friday.

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