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A Family Affair: National Spelling Bee Champ Begins a New School Year

Sep 06, 2017 04:12PM ● Published by Richard Melella

It has been three months since Ananya Vinay brought the title of Scripps National Spelling Bee Champion home to the Central Valley. The accolades and appreciation bestowed on the Fresno girl continue to impress. This past Saturday night at Bulldog Stadium, Ananya stood at the 50-yard line. It was fan appreciation night for former Bulldog standout and current Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, whose number and jersey were being retired. But when the announcer introduced Ananya and mentioned her achievement, it was apparent that a number of Carr fans were also Vinay fans. Many rose to their feet to show their appreciation for the young girl's accomplishment.

The road to public acclaim has been exciting for the 12-year-old.  Local writer Kelley Campos McCoy had the opportunity to sit down and interview her and her family.

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by Kelley Campos McCoy

On the eve of embarking on a new school year, Ananya Vinay sounded like any other 12-year-old looking forward to the adventures awaiting her. Excited. Eager. Hopeful.

Vinay is not like most kids, though, even the whip-smart ones.

Having just returned with her family from a week-long vacation in Florida – “this was one of my best summers,” she gushed – she spoke enthusiastically about how she had gotten into advanced science and math courses at Granite Ridge Intermediate School in Clovis and wanted to focus on competitions emphasizing advanced problem solving in those areas.  

When the bespectacled Fresno girl with perfect enunciation mentions competitions, pay attention. She is no stranger to them, and big ones at that.

She also knows what it’s like to do exceedingly well in them.

 

A national champion

In mid-May, Vinay won the California State Spelling Bee for the third year in a row. A couple weeks later, she became the Scripps National Spelling Bee champion – the first from the Central Valley to do so.

She was quickly swept up in a whirlwind of public accolades and appearances. She chatted with the eponymous talk show hosts of “Live with Kelly and Ryan” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and rang the bell on the New York Stock Exchange. Acting Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a proclamation designating June 8 Ananya Vinay Day, making her the youngest Californian to officially have a day named after her.

She soon discovered that when you’re the country’s most popular 6th grader, doors open for you.

The night she won the national spelling bee, an ESPN reporter informed Vinay that her favorite basketball team, the Golden State Warriors, was closing in on victory in Game 1 of the NBA finals. Asked if she had a message for Warriors Nation, Vinay, who seemed as shy after the competition as she was unflappable while winning it, looked up and smiled.

“Go Curry!” she said, referring to Warriors point guard and NBA All Star Stephen Curry.

The next week, she and her family were whisked by limo to Oakland’s Oracle Arena, where they watched the Warriors defeat the Cleveland Cavaliers for the NBA championship.

Most recently, Vinay was given a tour of Google’s Mountain View headquarters.

“When we ascertained that Ananya endeavored to visit the Googleplex, we invited her for lunch and a peregrination around campus,” explained Google’s Elisabeth Leoni in a blog post teeming with vocabulary fitting for the country’s best speller. Vinay told Leoni if she could work for the tech company one day, she would want to work in the medical research division where she could diagnose diseases.

When it is suggested that she isn’t your typical kid, Vinay – whose first name means “unique” in Sanskrit – protests.

“Just because I do spelling doesn't make me any less normal than any other kid. I have friends, I do stuff, I play sports, I go to school,” she says. “It’s just that I like to do spelling and I’m interested in language.

“That’s it.”

 

Ananya Vinay with Fugman Elementary School principal Jennifer Thomas, Her 6th grade teacher Jason Anaforian and Fugman spelling bee team advisor Ken Engel.

Family first

Vinay’s modest assessment of her accomplishments and measured appreciation of everything that has happened since are not surprising when you meet her parents.

Despite their demanding careers – Vinay Sreekumar is vice president of a global food-ingredients company headquartered in Fresno and Anupama Poliyedath is an internist with Community Regional Medical Center – family is their top priority. For them, this means time is both precious and a resource to allocate carefully.  

Poliyedath estimates that on busy weekdays she and her husband get only 2-3 hours a day with Vinay and her 7-year-old brother Achuth. Most of that time is spent talking, playing games and doing homework as a family. Unless the four are watching a family movie, the television stays off, although sometimes the kids may watch a half-hour of cartoons.

There is also the occasional father-son basketball game.

“He’s the Warriors and I’m Cleveland,” says Sreekumar with a chuckle, nodding toward the little boy with jet-black bangs focused intently on a video game while his parents and sister talk with a reporter.

Ananya with her parents Vinay Sreekumar and Anupama Poliyedath and brother Achuth

For Poliyedath, there was never a question that children are the beating heart of a family. Nor was there any doubt that one of a parent’s primary obligations is to pass on a love for learning. These were lessons she learned from her father, also a doctor, and reflecting on his role in her young life in India makes her teary-eyed.

"What I remember most about my childhood is how my dad would teach me and read me books and spend time with me,” she says of the man who died when she was Vinay’s age. “I wanted to be like him.

“He was my role model about how to be a parent.”

An early love of words 

The daughter learned well. Sreekumar tells how, as a young mother in Chicago, Poliyedath would take Vinay, then a toddler, on weekly visits to the public library within walking distance of their apartment.

“Even when there was snow and wind, she would carry her all the way, spend an hour there, pick up 25 books, then go back the next week,” he says, adding that they typically finished the books by the time they returned.

Poliyedath, who was doing her residency in Internal Medicine at John H. Stroger Hospital of Cook County, took a stroller during these outings but only used it to cart books. She insisted on holding Vinay.

“When you have limited time, you are more cognizant of how you spend time. I didn’t have much time with her,” she says of the 80-hour work weeks and 30-hour shifts that dominated the young family’s lives. “So when I’d come home, I wouldn’t sleep; I’d spend time with her and then I would sleep.

“I had a stroller but I didn’t want to put her down because I only saw her for a few hours.”

At first Poliyedath chose picture books she says she could read to Vinay “in a funny fashion,” meaning she often took liberties with the storylines in an effort to capture the toddler’s interest and stoke her imagination. By age 5, Vinay was reading chapter books on her own. Poliyedath has a photo of her at the first birthday party she attended, at 5 and-a-half, reading a book about fairies from the "Rainbow Magic" series.

Ananya Vinay was reading chapter books on her own by age 5.


“Now I read almost anything I can find,” Vinay says. “If the first 20 pages seem interesting, I’ll read the whole thing in an hour. I’m a really fast reader.”

Her favorite books are those in the Harry Potter series and the Pulitzer Prize-winning war novel “All The Light We Cannot See.” Paulo Coehlo’s modern allegory “The Alchemist,” which Vinay started reading out of boredom at home one day, turned out to be one of the most influential titles she’s read. She quoted from it during her victory speech at the national spelling bee: “When a person really desires something, all the universe conspires to help that person realize his dream.”

"People have different modes of relaxation. For her, relaxation is reading a book,” Vinay’s father says. “After any kind of stressful work, even between the spelling bees, she’d calm down by reading a book.”

Preparation and competition 

During competitions, it was Sreekumar who provided a sense of calm for his daughter. It was his eyes Vinay sought in the audience during those rare moments she needed reassurance, his down-turned palms she watched as they gently rose and fell – a signal to her to relax, that she had this.

“I’m more fun and creative and he’s the anchor,” Poliyedath, with her easy smile and infectious laughter, says of herself and her husband. She attended the spelling bees but listened to music in an attempt to quell her nerves. She would watch recordings of the competitions later.

“We’re complementary.”

Indeed, Sreekumar is as soft-spoken and deliberate in his speech as Poliyedath is open and enthusiastic, a blend that seems to have shaped and is reflected in their daughter. Poliyedath introduced Vinay to reading and encouraged her love for words. Sreekumar's methodical approach to learning – his steadfast commitment to structure, to taking things step-by-step – set the foundation for how the young girl prepared for spelling bees.

The process of preparation was two-fold. Vinay categorized words by language of origin so she could understand the patterns in their roots. She also looked up the etymology of the words to further help her remember them.

“She was not just learning the spelling of words. We could see that she was gaining knowledge,” Sreekumar says. “We could see she was getting to understand things, getting to the depth of things."

The possibility that Vinay could parlay her passion for words and interest in spelling into something big became apparent when she was in fourth grade and won the county and state spelling bees.

“We thought, ‘she can actually do this,’” Poliyedath says of competing at the national level.

To understand how daunting this enterprise is, consider that any of the more than 470,000 entries in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary can be used in the national spelling bee. Competitors may prepare by studying lists of words used in previous bees but, in the end, “you have to get to the dictionary” if you hope to have a chance of winning, Sreekumar says.

 Team Vinay

Victory

Vinay’s first appearance at the national spelling bee was in 2016. She was eliminated in the third round.

The loss only steeled her determination.

“She fell down very badly but, right after she came home, she got up and said, ‘Forget the past. I’m going to work harder,’” Sreekumar recalls.

Vinay spent two hours a day preparing for the 2017 national spelling bee. Typing out words proved to be an especially effective way to study. The multisensory technique allowed her to feel words as she typed, see words on a page and hear words as she read them aloud, collectively enhancing her ability to commit them to memory.

The young girl who went two for three on the national stage a year ago nailed 35 words in a row this year, cementing her victory with the correct spelling of “marocain,” a type of French fabric.

Vinay was the youngest of the 15 finalists and the first single winner of the national spelling bee since 2013. She is splitting the $40,000 cash prize with her kid brother, who she says is her biggest fan and her mother says is the only one able to rattle her. (His ability to annoy his big sister aside, Achuth’s loyalty to Vinay is firm, as he demonstrates when he lets it be known in no uncertain terms that the seat at the head of the interview table is for her, not the reporter seeking the best position to maintain eye contact with everyone.)

Sharing a laugh with Mr. Engel.

Looking ahead

Vinay says someday she would like to be “a doctor or a scientist or a writer, or a combination.”

For the time being she wants to make the most of seventh grade. In addition to focusing on math and science competitions, she plans to carve out plenty of time for reading during the academic year. She also wants to work on her new blog at wordwhizardry.com, a site where she hopes to share her thoughts, write an occasional book review and – surprise – maybe feature a word of the day.

 

With her own days of competing in spelling bees over, she has spoken of coaching spelling and promoting reading and writing in Fresno. Busy as she is, service matters to her, as her past involvement with the Community World Bank and Wounded Warriors Project attests.

Poliyedath says Hinduism and prayer play important roles in the family. Vinay says they pray mostly to be “healthy, happy and humble.” It is an endeavor that has served the young girl well.

With her parents by her side, it will no doubt continue to be.


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