Nine-year-old Akilan Sankaran “just wanted to have fun” during his first trip to the New Mexico Spelling Bee.
The Manzano Day School fourth-grader from Albuquerque ended up beating 38 competitors to earn the championship trophy and a place at the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., which begins May 28.
A slight, friendly boy with large dark eyes, Akilan was humble about his success, saying his words were easier than many that came up during the three-hour contest held Saturday.
He took the top prize by correctly spelling “retablo” – “a votive offering made in the form of a religious picture typically portraying Christian saints painted on a panel and hung in a church or chapel, especially in Spain and Mexico,” according to the Merriam-Webster definition.
Moments before, all six of his remaining competitors had been knocked out in a single grueling round.
“I am really happy and kind of surprised,” said Akilan, an aspiring pianist who enjoys chess and table tennis. “I just wanted to have fun here.”
New Mexico Spelling Bee coordinator Karen Kehe told the Journal it’s very rare for a 9-year-old to win the contest, which includes third through eighth graders from around the state. Some of the participants have competed five or six years in a row.
“He beat out a lot of spellers who’ve done this a lot of times,” Kehe said.
During the 15-round competition, Akilan took on words like “rejoneador,” a mounted bullfighter, and “mnemonic,” a memory aid.
Gradually, the group on the stage at Sandia Preparatory School in Albuquerque dwindled from 39 to a dozen, then just seven top spellers – four boys and three girls.
In the stunning 11th round, Akilan headed to the microphone first, correctly spelled “subcutaneous” – “being, living, occurring, or administered under the skin” – then watched as every other student stumbled.
He cinched the championship by slowly spelling “retablo” in a confident voice.
The six eliminated students returned for a spell-off to determine the second- and third-place winners.
Niveditha Bala, an eighth-grader at Mandela International Magnet School in Santa Fe, earned second with “sabreur,” “one who fences with a sabre.” Another Santa Fe student, Akansha Nanda, a fifth-grader at Carlos Gilbert Elementary School, came in third, spelling “esbat,” “a meeting of a coven of witches.”
The two girls – both aspiring doctors – said it was nerve-racking to come back onstage after missing their words in the 11th round.
“I was freaking out,” Niveditha Bala said. “I didn’t think I would make it this far.”
Proud mom Devi Bala laughed and commented that her daughter always thinks she won’t do well, “then rocks it.”
For Akilan, the focus now is preparing for the Scripps National Spelling Bee, a six-day contest with a $40,000 grand prize that will be televised on ESPN.
His parents – Siva Rajamanickam and Sridevi Kumaravelu – said they are excited for their son to face the best in the country, particularly because he is relatively new to competitive spelling.
Last year, Akilan reached fourth place in the Manzano Day School spelling bee, just out of the running for the district or state contests. He advanced this time, putting in 30 to 45 minutes each day to study the word list.
Asked to describe his game plan for the Scripps National Spelling Bee, Akilan smiled and said, “I think I will keep doing the same things I’ve been doing.”