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Issue Date: August 2010 Issue


Queen of the Bee

After schooling 272 other competitors at this year's Scripps National Spelling Bee, Anamika Veeramani settles in for the summer and talks about the path to being America's top speller.
Amber Matheson
Anamika Veeramani has been studying. Just a little brush up on sine, cosine and reciprocal ratios.

Her trigonometry textbook lies open on a mint-colored bedspread. It's the only thing out of place in the teen's orderly bedroom, where Winnie the Pooh cutouts are posted alongside inspirational quotes above the desk, and a handsome reference library stands sentry atop the dresser.

The math book is out of place for another reason. It's the end of June, as in summer vacation; as in, there's really no need to even think about this stuff for another two months.

But after being crowned the nation's best speller June 5, Anamika is experiencing a feeling the academic all-star and all-around knowledge sponge hasn't often felt. It's called boredom. After years of training for math, spelling and vocabulary contests, preparing for science fairs and crafting award-winning essays, she has essentially retired from the academic-competition circuit she's known for years.

Her goodbye party was the 2010 Scripps National Spelling Bee, at which the North Royalton native took first place. Her gold watch was a huge trophy — heavy and currently in the process of being engraved.

Now, she is left with a wide-open summer to prepare for the transition from junior high to freshman year at Laurel School. Today, that preparation has manifested itself as recreational studying for the math class she'll face.

"This summer has been pretty boring," she concedes. "When my friends [used to] say, 'Oh, we have nothing to do this summer,' I'd be like, 'I have so much to do.' Now I have nothing to do."

Of course, by "nothing," Anamika means two hours of Indian dance practice a day, weekly golf lessons and quality mall-hangout time. She jokes that the math book is open because she doesn't want to fail out of high school; then she explains that she wants to go to Harvard someday because it's the best.

"If you really want to give it your best, you should make sure that you don't waste any time that you have in your hands," says her mother, Malar. "Whatever time you have, if you manage it properly, that's the best you can do."

Anamika heeds those words, sifting through the teenage wasteland for quality uses of her time. She's finally getting a cell phone, but she refuses to text shorthand. Yes, she occasionally watches the Disney Channel, but she much prefers Top Chef.

Dozens of trophies large and small flank the television and fireplace in her family's living room, decorating an entire wall and reaching to the ceiling. They dominate the space. Some of them belong to Anamika's younger brother, but most are hers, shiny tributes to a decade of accomplishments. Miniature softball players shine in silver and gold atop colorful columns. Science fair trophies nestle alongside math awards and statuettes from others spelling bees.

"That trophy we actually broke," she says, pointing vaguely toward the middle of the pack. It came from Live with Regis and Kelly, where she out-spelled Kelly Ripa and guest host Neil Patrick Harris (although, to be fair, Harris chose to spell the rap-name version of the word ludicrous). We're currently watching her appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live, just another stop on the 14-year-old's post-win media circuit.

This year's national spelling bee was the largest ever, featuring 273 spellers between the ages of 8 and 15. Most, like Anamika, won school bees before competing in a citywide competition such as the Cuyahoga County Regional Spelling Bee, which Anamika also aced. And many, like Anamika, also competed in North South Foundation spelling bees. The nonprofit organization hosts scads of academic contests for Indian-American children and raises money to provide scholarships for kids in India.

As a little girl, she rose to the challenge of North South Foundation competitions, but Malar could see Anamika's true love was language. She came alive during spelling and vocabulary contests and became a voracious reader. In 2004, at age 7, she competed at the national level. Her ouster was the word unceremoniously.

"I was horrible the first few years," she says. But her mom encouraged her to keep at it. When Anamika only missed one spelling word during her entire fourth-grade year, her teacher took note. Incarnate Word's Janice Hearst swiped the boys spelling team's list and started coaching her.

Anamika came in fifth at the 2009 Scripps National Spelling Bee, missing the German word fackeltanz. "I know German words now," she says with a loaded glance and a self-deprecating laugh. She and Malar took the defeat as a challenge and turned their study sessions for the 2010 bee into a two-woman conference on lexicographic evolution. They used German words as their theme and set off Lewis-and-Clark style. The hours of study and exploration paid off when Anamika stepped to the microphone for her win and was asked to spell the German word stromuhr.

It was the last bee for Anamika. Scripps National Spelling Bee winners aren't eligible to compete. Once a champion, always a champion is how Anamika likes to explain it. Eighth grade is also the last year of eligibility for many of the other academic competitions in which she's competed over the years. So after years of summers full of prep work, the kid who thrives on learning is adjusting to taking it easy.

"I know what a lot of people think about a spelling bee is, they think everyone who participates is a nerd," she says. "I do so many other things than spelling, and it just happened to be that spelling was one of the things I was really good at."
 

 
 
Life Lessons
 
- I can't memorize anything and remember it for more than a day.
 
- You can't worry about your competitors because you have no control over them, unless they're like robots or something.
 
- I wanted to jump after I won. ... If I jumped and fell off the stage, that would be a really good photo op, but it wouldn't be good for me.
 

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