Published June 01, 2010
McLEAN, Va. (AP) -- The youngest competitor at this year's Scripps National Spelling Bee was having a ball, making new friends and waiting her turn to sing a Hannah Montana song in karaoke.
Eight-year-old Vanya Shivashankar of Olathe, Kan., looked half the size of the some of the kids surrounding her Tuesday at the annual spellers' picnic. The third-grader also happens to be the sister of last year's winner.
So what does she think of her chances of winning?
"It's a big shot," she said.
"Long shot," her father, Mirle, gently corrected.
"Yes," Vanya said brightly, "a long shot."
Maybe so, but her pedigree suggests she'll be a legitimate contender in a few years. Spelling, it seems, is very much a family affair. There will be quite a few familiar last names when the three-day competition begins Wednesday, culminating with the finals Friday night.
Take the Evans family from Albuquerque. They've been representing New Mexico for seven consecutive years: five with Matthew and two with Hannah. The dynasty will finally come to an end this year because this is 14-year-old Hannah's last year of eligibility -- and they have no younger siblings.
"Everybody sees us, saying we need to adopt," Helen Evans said. "And that the only criteria for adoption be, 'Do you like to spell?"'
Also following in family footsteps is Deborah Horton of Gainesville, Va., who is back for her second and final year after watching brother Jonathan compete for three years. Like Vanya and Hannah, Deborah says she doubts she would have given the bee a try if the older sibling hadn't paved the way.
"He inspired me to be here," Deborah said.
Twenty of the 273 spellers in Washington, D.C., this week have had at least one relative who took part in a previous national bee. The most noticeable pair at Tuesday's picnic were the Shivashankars -- lots of spellers wanted to get an autograph from reigning champion Kavya and ask her for advice, and no one could believe how small Vanya is.
"She's the baby," her mother, Sandy, said with a laugh.
Kavya has enjoyed her year of celebrity as bee champion, traveling and doing interviews. She's moved on to other types of competitions and still wants to be a neurosurgeon, but her little sister has helped her return to a familiar pastime.
"I work with her a bit," Kavya said. "It's nice to get back into it because I really miss spelling."
Still, everyone in the family was a bit surprised when Vanya won her regional bee to qualify for the finals at such an early age. She even traces the words on her hand before spelling them, just as Kavya did, although she wants to be heart surgeon instead of a neurosurgeon.
"She was such a good listener at what Kavya was doing," Sandy Shivashankar said. "Vanya has so much energy."
Matthew Evans was a perennial contender who never won the championship; his best finish was sixth in 2007. He now competes in the National Bible Bee, but he's helped sister Hannah by recording some 50,000 words for her to listen to and spell.
Hannah didn't make it past the preliminaries last year, and her goal this year is to simply make it to the semifinals, televised by ESPN.
"I'm obviously not as good as he was," Hannah said, "but it's fun to just do the spelling anyway."
Tuesday's picnic offered the spellers a last chance to relax and frolic before the competition gets tense and serious. A sign of the event's growing popularity: A television crew from South Korea was following 14-year-old Hyunsoo Kim, who goes to an English school in Seoul and is representing her country at the bee.
The highlight came when Matthew, Jonathan and two other former spellers who never won the championship took the karaoke microphones and parodied "We Are the Champions."
"We are the Has-Beens, my friend," they sang. "And we'll keep on spelling 'til the end. No time for winners -- because we never won the bee."
But they can always root for their little sisters.