‘Mozambique’ wins Santa Fe speller a ticket to Washington

March 28, 2018

The word was “Mozambique.” It made 11-year-old Akansha Nanda’s heart thump noisily in her chest.

After more than three hours and 15 rounds, only two spellers remained in the New Mexico Spelling Bee. Akansha, a sixth-grader at Santa Fe’s Carlos Gilbert Elementary School, and Eliana Juarez, a 13-year-old from Rio Rancho, already had bested 41 other spellers who had gathered Saturday morning at Sandia Preparatory School in Albuquerque for a battle of words.

Judges defined “Mozambique” as a lightweight dress fabric, but it wasn’t until they named the word’s origin – from the eponymous country in southwest Africa – that Akansha knew she could string together the correct letters and clench victory.

“My heart was pounding so loud,” she said. “I don’t know. That’s all I could hear.”

The win caps four years of rigorous study and competition for Akansha. She first competed in the state competition as a third-grader — rare for someone so young. She placed fourth that year, beating out students nearly double her age. The competition welcomes kids ages 8 to 14.

In 2016, she placed second as a fourth-grader. This past year, she placed third.

“When she gets interested, she endures everything to get through,” said her mother, Sujatha Seethapathi. “That’s what she did this time.”

The Albuquerque Journal annually hosts the statewide competition, in its 71st year this year.

As its winner, Akansha will receive an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C., for herself and a parent. There, she’ll be one of two New Mexico spellers to compete at the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Eighth-grader Liam Nyikos, from Carlsbad, earned a spot when he won the 2018 El Paso Times Spelling Bee earlier this month, according to that Texas newspaper.

Akansha also received a $100 American Express gift card, a 2018 U.S. Mint proof set and a veritable treasure trove of digital knowledge – one-year subscriptions to Merriam-Webster’s unabridged online dictionary and Encyclopedia Britannica online.

Seethapathi said the whole family plans to cheer on Akansha at the national bee, scheduled for May 27 through June 1.

At Saturday’s contest, Juarez became the runner-up when she misspelled “carbonari,” meaning the members of a secret Italian political organization, in round 14. Eighth-grader Milidu Jayaweera, from Albuquerque, placed third.

Since November, when contest organizers released a list of 1,150 practice words, Akansha has spent about an hour practicing each night, she said.

That task was easier this year than in the past, thanks in large part to her parents’ help.

Seethapathi, a programmer, and her husband, Nanda Kumar, wrote a computer program to help their children study (Akansha’s 9-year-old brother, Anirudh Nanda, placed fourth at the county competition this year).

“Since we are from a different culture, we do not know how to pronounce these words,” Kumar said. “So we wrote an application … where the computer will tell the right pronunciation.”

Kumar and Seethapathi emigrated from Coimbatore in southern India in the early 2000s. Both of their children were born here.

Seethapathi said they noticed their daughter had a propensity for language at a young age. Before she turned 2, she could identify words in the picture books they read her.

Akansha remains an avid reader. On the wall of her school’s library, a list tracks the students who check out the most books. Akansha and Anirudh top the list – 55 for Akansha, 57 for Anirudh — so far this school year.

A “healthy competition” has developed between the two, Seethapathi said. They test each other’s spelling acumen and correct mistakes.

Asked by a reporter for The New Mexican to name her favorite word, Akansha didn’t have to think for very long.

“My favorite word is flibbertigibbet,” she said. “And flabbergasted. I learned flabbergasted when I was, like, in second grade or something, and I’ve loved it.”

As the reporter copied the words down in her notes, Akansha looked on.

“It’s “G-I-B-B-E-T,” she said, pointing to an erroneous “j” in flibbertigibbet.

“And it’s, so, I’ll tell you how to spell it. F-L-I-B-B-E-R-T-I-G-I-B-B-E-T.”

Contact Sarah Halasz Graham at 505-995-3862 or sgraham@sfnewmexican.com.

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