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Son of Indo-American National Spelling Bee champ hopes to make history

Last year, Mira Dedhia, whose mother competed in the bee three times, finished third.

This year, the first child of a former champion is competing.

Dr. Balu Natarajan, a physician from Hinsdale, Illinois, won in 1985 by spelling “milieu,” a word that almost certainly wouldn’t be used beyond preliminary rounds. His 12-year-old son, Atman Balakrishnan, is making his debut this year, and his ultimate goal is to equal his father’s achievement.

No pressure, though. “He does help me and try to make me work harder, because he knows that I want this,” Atman said. “If he knew that I did not want this, he would not push me.”

The bee began on Tuesday with 516 spellers, by far the most in its history. The expanded field means three full days of spelling instead of two. The 50 or so spellers who make the finals will be announced Wednesday, then compete Thursday until a champion is crowned.

As usual, most of the presumed favourites are Indian-American. Natarajan was the first Indian-American to win. Another followed in 1988.

Eighteen of the past 22 champions have been Indian-American, including three years when there were co-champions.

Natarajan is on the board of the North South Foundation, a nonprofit that hosts national competitions in spelling and other subjects and has served as a training ground for nearly all the recent champions. That’s just one reason among many for the success of Indian-Americans. “It’s become now kind of a good cycle where certain Indian-Americans succeed, and I think they’ve inspired others to do the same,” Natarajan said. “I have no idea what my part is in that, if any.”

This year’s bee has 516 spellers, roughly a fourfold increase over Natarajan’s first bee. That’s not the only thing that has changed. “The word bank of most of the spellers or many of the spellers has just gone up dramatically,” he said. “I think you could win the spelling bee back then by knowing maybe 10,000 words, and now the kids who win have to know somewhere between 40-and-80,000 words.”

Here are some other things to know about the first day of spelling:

HIGH-STAKES TEST

The bee begins with a written spelling and vocabulary test.

It’s the biggest factor in determining the roughly 50 spellers who will advance to Thursday’s finals, and the consensus was that it was very difficult.

The field of spellers expanded by more than 200 this year because Scripps started a wild-card program to give opportunities to more kids from highly competitive regions.

As a result, Scripps had to craft a test that would separate the most skilled and prepared spellers. 

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