Shivashankars Are Taking Their Sister Act to DC

By: Dawn Bormann, The Olathe News
By: Dawn Bormann, The Olathe News

WASHINGTON -- Kavya Shivashankar stole the hearts of Kansas Citians and the world when she won the 2009 Scripps National Spelling Bee.

But the world hasn’t seen nothing yet.

Meet Vanya Shivashankar — Kavya’s 4-foot tall little sister. The 8-year-old will be the youngest contestant at the 2010 Scripps Bee, which starts today. It’s Vanya’s first time, but she’s hardly a rookie.

The vivacious Olathe youngster has been hamming it up among the Scripps bee crowd since she was 4. While Kavya was focused on stage, Vanya was her cheerleader and ambassador in the crowd.

“She was a social bee…making friends and talking to people,” said Kavya, 14.

TV cameras often gravitated toward the little sister who had a ball during breaks from the intense competition. A scrapbook photo shows the youngster being carried by a bee pronouncer one year.

But now it’s Vanya’s turn to shine on stage. And she is focused on her goal.

“I want to be just like my sister,” Vanya said proudly with a smile that would melt even the most hardened adult.

As for her chances to win this year, the Regency Place Elementary student is realistic.

“It’s a possibility, but no,” Vanya said matter-of-factly.

Vanya is going with all intentions to win the bee, but she knows it’s her first year and there are others with more experience. If she wins, the sisters would be the first siblings to win the top prize.

“I just want to try my best this year,” said Vanya, who is sponsored by The Olathe News.

The 2010 Scripps spellers range in age from 8 to 15, but 80 percent are between the ages of 12 and 14, according to Scripps. Many contestants will tower over the petite girl, who will enter fourth grade in August.

“She’s going to be so tiny. I don’t know how she’s going to reach the microphone,” her father, Mirle Shivashankar said.

If Vanya is intimidated by the competition, few would know.

“She’s too young to be nervous. She’s seen that stage,” her father said.

In fact, Vanya said she is most excited to meet other contestants and reconnect with bee families.

“We all encourage each other,” Vanya said.

The process isn’t nearly as fierce as it may look on TV.

“It’s a competition but we all understand it’s not a competition with each other. It’s against the dictionary,” Mirle Shivashankar said. “Some kids get out of the spelling bee and sit down and cheer for others.”

Yet Vanya does have some clear advantages over the other 272 spellers, including three others from the Kansas City area. For starters, she’s been there before and has studied alongside the reigning champion. Vanya watched and learned as her father and sister studied together for years. Now Kavya helps tutor her little sister.

Parents Mirle and Sandy Shivashankar said if there is a family dynasty then it wasn’t instigated by them. Years ago they agreed to help Kavya when she declared her dream of bringing home the Scripps trophy. The girls quickly became captivated with “bee week.”

“It’s not just about spelling. It is a lot of fun,” their father explained. “You have 300 families with the same interests.”

Years ago Kavya memorized words, but the family soon realized there was little emotional let alone educational value in that process. They changed their approach and instead taught their children to learn root words. Once they knew the spelling and meaning, it became fun for them unravel unfamiliar words.

“It’s not enjoyable if it’s memorizing,” her father said.

In addition, the girls understand the words and can use the knowledge for various subjects in school. Vanya wants to be a cardiac surgeon and Kavya wants to be a neurosurgeon.

“The words are going to be used in her life,” Mirle Shivashankar said. “There’s a lot more take away. It’s not just spelling.”

Refining that technique means that Vanya is perhaps more prepared than Kavya was at her first Scripps bee.

“Kavya had a much bigger vocabulary at 10, but Vanya has the fundamentals,” Mirle Shivashankar said. “So she can handle new words much better.”

Yet Vanya’s parents are careful not to force the process on their girls. School work takes priority. Vanya’s parents have kept her study sessions short.

“She can’t focus for that long. She’s too young…it all has to be balanced,” her father said.

“We want them to be good citizens,” Sandy Shivashankar said.

Vanya is left with plenty of time to play.

“I like acting and singing and dancing,” she said. “I like riding my bike, swimming and playing piano.”

Kavya can no longer compete, but she’s encouraged her sister to enjoy every minute.

“The whole experience is just a great thing. I know I won’t forget it for the rest of my life. I want her to have that same experience,” Kavya said.

For her part, Vanya’s love for her older sister is evident in her support, body language and even her word list. When asked if Vanya has a favorite word, she was quick with an answer.

The word means poetic composition and appears on Scripps’ official word list.

“It’s Kavya.”

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