Karthik Nemmani didn’t win his regional spelling bee. He didn’t even win his county spelling bee. But he was still good enough to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
Throwing everything he had into his one shot at glory, 14-year-old Karthik outlasted better-known spellers and became the champion after a dramatically abrupt end to the competition, when 12-year-old Naysa Modi misspelled the word “Bewusstseinslage” in the first championship round.
Karthik had to spell two words correctly to seal the title, which he did with ease, and the lanky, soft-spoken Texan stepped back and smiled as he was showered with confetti. His winning word was “koinonia,” which means Christian fellowship or communion.
Karthik is from McKinney, Texas, and Naysa lives in Frisco, Texas, both suburbs of Dallas, and Naysa topped Karthik at their county bee.
“She’s a really, really good speller. She deserved the trophy as much as I did,” Karthik said. “I got lucky.”
He said there were eight or nine words during the prime-time finals he didn’t know — a rare admission for a Scripps champion.
In the past, losing at the county level would have made Karthik ineligible for the national competition, but he got in through a wild-card program that was instituted this year.
The third-place finisher, 11-year-old Abhijay Kodali, came in second to Naysa at the Dallas regional bee, one of just a few regions that sends multiple spellers to nationals. Dallas has long been one of the most competitive regions in the country, and the lack of opportunity for spellers as talented as Karthik is what led Scripps to create the wild-card program in the first place.
Karthik’s cousin, Sri Nemmali, also competed in this year’s bee and marveled at Karthik’s discipline and study habits.
“He deserves it. He would have beaten me, definitely,” Sri said. “That’s one speller I know who’s better than I am.”
Naysa, a crowd favorite and four-time Scripps participant who does taekwondo and performs stand-up comedy, will have to regroup after a bitter defeat and try again next year. She’ll be 13 and in eighth grade, which is the final school year that spellers are eligible. She first competed in the bee as a cherubic 9-year-old.
After her defeat, she was swarmed by dozens of current and former spellers who wished her well, smiling throughout.
“She was just as graceful as she could be,” bee program manager Corrie Loeffler said.
Naysa’s close friend, Jashun Paluru of West Lafayette, Indiana, finished fourth, spelling with flair and spending most of his time in between words chatting animatedly with Naysa.
Karthik, for his part, took no extra satisfaction in vanquishing a familiar foe.
“I wouldn’t say it was revenge,” he said. “We weren’t against each other. We were against the dictionary.”
Karthik is the 14th consecutive Indian-American champion, and 19 of the past 23 winners have had Indian heritage. In addition to the trophy, he gets more than $40,000 in cash and prizes.