By any measure, Shruthika Padhy is one of the most accomplished spellers in this year's Scripps National Spelling Bee. And for spellers who are nervous or less experienced, she offers a master class every time she steps to the microphone.
She repeats the word several times, giving the judges ample opportunity to correct her if her pronunciation is off. She asks questions, but only the ones that elicit useful information. And she mimes writing the word on her hand, both as she listens to the judges and then, letter by letter, while she spells.
Even if she knows the word immediately — as she did with "orthodontic" during Wednesday's preliminary round — she never rushes.
"I'm a visual learner, so I imagine the word and then I write it on my hand," Shruthika said. "I ask a series of questions, starting with what I think would be the most helpful."
Shruthika, a 13-year-old from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, has finished in the top 10 each of the past two years at Scripps. She was among 50 spellers who advanced to Thursday's finals, including nine who were tied for 10th or better last year. The biggest shock among the finalists was a speller who didn't make it: Naysa Modi, last year's runner-up, who competed in her fifth and final bee.
Shruthika has been pretending to write on her hand since she started competing in bees at age 6. The rest of the routine has evolved over time, and she stresses that she's not a robot. She doesn't always ask the same questions or take the same amount of time, but she never gets harried.
"I always do repeat the word and write on my hand," she said. "It helps me to have a routine to follow, whether I choose to stick to it or not."
Should other spellers follow her example?
"It depends on the speller — if you like to be organized, or if you don't," Shruthika said.
PAY TO PLAY
The wild-card program that allows spellers to pay their way into the bee if they don't win at the regional or state level is almost certainly here to stay, given that last year's champion was a wild card.
But there are concerns among current and former spellers that too many kids are showing up at nationals just because their families are able to afford the $1,500 entry fee, plus travel, lodging and expenses.
The preliminary rounds featured wild-card spellers who were clearly overwhelmed by words including "tendon," ''vestibule," ''allocation" and "gyro." Letting in spellers who are unprepared, former top-10 speller Siyona Mishra said, is creating "a bad reputation for the program."
Scripps' goal for the wild-card program was to give opportunities to spellers who've been to nationals before, who are running out of eligibility — the bee is open to kids through eighth grade — or who come from highly competitive regions. But this year's wild cards also included dozens of first-timers and younger spellers.
There were 17 wild cards age 9 or younger, and none of those advanced to the finals.
Wild cards are required to have won a bee at only the school level. Paige Kimble, the bee's executive director, said there's no fair way to evaluate spellers' proficiency based on their performance in regional bees.
"What is second place in one community might be 30th place in another community in terms of competitive level, difficulty level," Kimble said. "And there are tens of thousands of spelling bees going on all across the United States, so there is no practical process to go into each of those spelling bees and identify, gauge the competitive level of those programs."
Cameron Keith of Boulder, Colorado, a 13-year-old who qualified for the bee for the fourth time and advanced to the finals, said the wild-card program should be reined in.
"I think it's a really good thing, but I think they should limit it to 100 people or so," Cameron said.
COACH 'EM UP
Among the entrepreneurial ex-spellers who work as coaches for current competitors, Shobha Dasari and her brother, Shourav, stand out.
Last year's champion, Karthik Nemmani, name-checked the Dasaris' study guide, SpellPundit, after his victory. For an annual subscription price of $600, SpellPundit provides a curated list of more than 100,000 words and online study tools, and the Dasaris offer a money-back guarantee that any word used in this year's bee will be included in their guides.
The Dasaris went big for the week, purchasing advertising space on an electronic billboard near the bee venue. The ad includes a picture of Shourav and Karthik, but not Shobha.
"I'm a little bit older," said 18-year-old Shobha, who competed from 2013-2015 and will begin her freshman year at Stanford at the fall. "Not as many spellers are familiar with me anymore."
Shourav is considered one of the best spellers never to win at Scripps. He finished fourth in 2017 but won every other major national bee, including the North-South Foundation bee, the South Asian Spelling Bee and the North America Spelling Bee Champion Challenge.
Shobha and Shourav, who live in Spring, Texas, also offer one-on-one coaching, and they have six pupils at this year's bee. But 16-year-old Shourav isn't in town: He's taking final exams.
THE NAME GAME
The kids who sat next to speller Number 203 on the stage could be forgiven for wondering if some kind of prank was afoot.
On Tuesday, her first day on stage, the big blue placard around her neck referred to her as Catherine Mew. On Wednesday, Scripps had figured out that she usually goes by her middle name and rechristened her Eden Mew.
"Nobody really thought anything of it," Eden said. "I didn't even really notice that it was different."
Confusion over her name is nothing new.
For the record, the 11-year-old from Atlanta has a double name, a Southern tradition wherein a girl shares her mother's first name but has a different middle name, and is often referred to by both names as if they were hyphenated.
"My mother, who is from New Jersey, said, 'Please, for the love of God, don't do this. Nobody will understand what is going on,'" said Catherine Mew, Eden's mother.
When the Mew family leaves the South, complications ensue. They've dealt with bureaucratic hurdles while boarding aeroplanes and travelling abroad."When we fly out of the Atlanta airport," Catherine said, "Delta understands."