To the fans watching on ESPN, Nihar Janga's win last year in the Scripps National Spelling Bee was a shock: He was only 11 years old, a fifth-grader appearing in the bee for the first time, competing against 8th-graders with deep voices and facial hair.
To the tightknit community of spellers and ex-spellers who track performances leading up to the bee, Nihar was something else: a seasoned competitor with an impressive resume and a threat to win it all.
As the bee has become increasingly difficult, spellers are less likely to come out of nowhere and hoist the trophy. There's more information available about kids in the bee, and champion spellers have increasingly fit a familiar profile. For them, the bee is an all-consuming, year-round pursuit.
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"There's definitely an established set of favorites, and as you have more well-known spelling bees to compete in, you have more barometers of how well people are going to do," said Mitchell Robson, 15, who finished 7th in last year's bee. "There's usually one or two people you see coming out of nowhere every year, but it's definitely very difficult to have more than that. ... Last year, Nihar Janga definitely did not come of nowhere."
Nihar was considered a dangerous speller because, the previous summer, he had finished second in the North South Foundation spelling bee. The nonprofit foundation hosts national competitions for Indian-Americans in a variety of academic fields. The last 10 National Spelling Bee winners have participated in the foundation's spelling bee, and 17 of the past 21 champions have been Indian-American. Also, three of the nine kids who've won the South Asian Spelling Bee have gone on to win the Scripps bee.
The last dark horse to win was Ansun Sujoe, a co-champion in 2014, the first of three straight years during which the bee ended in a tie. His results in the North South Foundation weren't impressive, and he didn't make it past the preliminary rounds in his prior National Spelling Bee appearance.
Two years ago, Vanya Shivashankar and Gokul Venkatachalam easily withstood the pressure of being labeled co-favorites and shared the title. And last year, Nihar was co-champion with Jairam Hathwar, a polished speller whose older brother shared the title with Ansun in 2014.
Things were different a generation ago, before the internet and before the creation of the North South Foundation and South Asian bees. Lekshmi Nair, who participated in the bee from 1988-1990, said she showed up knowing next to nothing about her fellow spellers.
"There wasn't this pipeline or anything like that. Really, it was anyone's guess what could happen," said Nair, whose 13-year-old daughter, Mira Dedhia, is making her second appearance in the bee this year. "My final year there it was a girl who, it was her first time in the nationals. No one had heard of her prior to that. That was maybe a time when it was more like anyone's game."
Now, ex-spellers who remain close to the bee swap lists of favorites and participate in fantasy leagues. They share news about the words used in regional bees and pay close attention to parts of the country that are known to be competitive, like Florida, California, New York and Texas. Some work as pronouncers or bee judges, attend the minor-league bees as fans or watch them on livestreams.
For this year's bee, which starts Tuesday, three spellers are consensus favorites: Shourav Dasari, a past North South Foundation and South Asian Spelling Bee champion whose older sister came close several times; Siyona Mishra, who won last year's South Asian bee and finished 9th in her only National Spelling Bee appearance; and Tejas Muthusamy, who's making his fourth appearance, with two previous top-10 finishes.
Even if one of the favorites ends up winning, the bee still has plenty of surprises. Last year, Shourav was also highly touted, but he misspelled a word and fell just short of the prime-time finals.
"In almost every bee there's a kid or a handful of kids that there's a lot of chatter about because they've done well previously," said Paige Kimble, the bee's executive director. "And almost every bee there's a shock moment that comes when those kids who were the subject of a lot of chatter meet the word they didn't know."
Siyona said in an interview that she doesn't feel any additional pressure from being considered a favorite. But she knows her experience is an advantage.
"Participating in the South Asian Spelling Bee helps you prepare for spelling on stage and figuring out words you've never seen before," Siyona said.
No matter how much success they've had ahead of the bee, elite spellers also have to show a single-minded commitment, putting in the thousands of hours of practice required to be able to spell hundreds of thousands of words. Not all of the 291 spellers in the bee are that dedicated.
Nair has been quizzing her daughter, Mira, at least 2 hours a night, and more on weekends, since last year's bee. Mira fell just short of advancing from the preliminary rounds last year and wants to improve on that. She's going all-out because she's in 8th grade and it's her final year of eligibility.
"It would be very hard to do for three, four years in a row. I would have a hard time with that," said Nair, a radiologist who also has a 2-year-old daughter. "It's been very exhausting."