NATIONAL HARBOR, MD. — Eleven-year-old Samhita Kumar correctly spelled “phosphorus” and “disproportionate” Wednesday in the preliminary rounds of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, but she was surprised when she heard her name called by judges Thursday as one of 40 spellers to advance to the final round of the 90-year-old annual competition.
A sixth-grader at Winston Churchill Middle School and a first-timer at the National Spelling Bee, Kumar considered herself an underdog among the 291 spellers.
“I’m really excited, and I’m just, like, so happy,” she said with a big grin.
Kumar said she was relieved when asked to spell a word she knew – “phosphorus” – in round two, but knew not to get too confident because she might mess it up out of fear. Then she aced “disproportionate” in round three.
Kumar qualified for the National Bee after winning the 2017 California Central Valley Spelling Bee in March.
Kumar has big shoes to fill because the 2015 and 2016 winner of the local competition, Snehaa Ganesh Kumar, who was too old to compete this year, placed third in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 2016. Rageshree Ramachandran was the last Sacramento speller to win the national bee in 1988.
Kumar started spelling at the age of seven after her brother, who is now in high school, inspired her to start practicing.
Although her brother couldn’t make it to the bee to watch her, her mother, Priya Balasubramanian, spent Wednesday cheering her on from the audience.
After a long day of nervous anticipation watching her daughter pass two oral spelling rounds on-stage and land a high enough score on Tuesday’s written test, Balasubramanian said she felt exhausted and exhilarated.
Like her daughter, Balasubramanian, said she felt “cautiously optimistic” about Kumar’s chances to make the finals. “It was something we hoped for but never expected,” she said. “I was hoping. I knew she had done well on the test, but you never know with these things.”
As for preparation for Thursday’s finals? Kumar said she might review a few words, but nothing too rigorous. As long as she encounters words she knows, she said she has a good chance at doing well. Kumar said the hardest words for her to spell are “words that I have no idea about. My guessing skills are not the best.”
Kumar will participate in Thursday’s finals, which begin at 10 a.m. and last several hours. At 6 p.m., the remaining spellers take a written test to be used in case of a tie. The televised portion of the finals begins at 8 p.m. EDT on ESPN.