Youngest Speller in History Hits Bee Stage

Sriram Hathwar, 8, didn't make it to the quarter finals.

May 28, 2008, 6:48 PM

WASHINGTON, May 29, 2008 -- Within seconds of adjusting the tall microphone to better match his 8-year-old height, Sriram Hathwar nailed the word judges gave him, barely pausing between letters.

"Elicitation," said Sriram, making sure to pronounce the word correctly. "E-l-i-c-i-t-a-t-i-o-n."

The crowd cheered perhaps just a touch louder for the pint-size speller, and he slinked back to his seat on stage, disappearing behind the taller contestants sitting in front of him.

Despite his correct spelling of a word trickier than many of the others given during the preliminary round of the 2008 Scripps National Spelling Bee -- his peers were asked words such as "rigatoni" and "macaroon" -- Sriram was barred from moving on to the bee's quarterfinals because of his score on a written spelling test administered earlier this week.

But Sriram, the youngest speller in the history of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, should still be proud of his accomplishment. Only 90 of the 288 spellers who competed qualified for the next round.

Surrounded by both disappointed, disqualified spellers and those eager to get back on the stage for the next round, the second-grader stoically left the ballroom where the bee was held.

"I am ready to get it over with," Sriram told the night before his turn in front of the judges, smiling from behind his thick-rimmed glasses, pausing only to share some of his favorite words and then, of course, to spell them out loud.

Sriram, who was 7 years old when he secured a place in this competition after nailing the spelling of impervious in a regional bee near his hometown of Pointed Post, N.Y., began playing with words when he was a toddler, according to his mom. She practices internal medicine when she's not working as her son's spelling coach.

"When [Sriram] was about 4 years old, he was still in preschool and his teachers would come and tell me that he could read and write really well," said Roopa Hathwar, adding that she is often more nervous before bees than her son. "They would go to him to clarify spelling. … He became the spell check for the class."

Sriram soon became obsessed with words -- playing Scrabble, constructing his own crossword puzzles and constantly asking his parents how to spell things he saw around him.

"When my dad would take me places, I'd read words on different [signs] and would start to write them out," Sriram said. "I got better and better at spelling them."

It's common to see competitors write the words in the air before spelling them audibly -- some even use their feet to draw imaginary letters on the stage, to help avoid risking elimination before the judges, but Sriram has his own less complicated technique.

"I just remember the words," said Sriram, who admits that if he's not positive of a word's spelling, he will repeat the word a few times and then ask for its origin, one of just a few questions stumped spellers are allowed to ask.

"They're in my head," he added.

The hardest word Sriram said he's ever had to spell is "zyzzogeton," a South American leaf hopper.

"I missed one of the z's," said Sriram, who added that he knows the word's spelling by heart now, just in case the judges were thinking about tripping him up.

Sriram said he's sure that if he had been around to compete in the 1941 Scripps Spelling Bee, he would have won.

"'Initials' was the easiest championship word," said Sriram, who has studied the words that won spellers trophies in the past.

Using a combination of computer programs and flashcards, as well as help from his parents, he tries to study for at least two hours a day, each day.

"He's got a talent and he takes it as a challenge, so he studies a lot," said his father, Jagadeesh Hathwar, a gastroenterologist who, like his wife, was raised and schooled in Bangalore, India.

"B-a-n-g-a-l-o-r-e," spelled Sriram.

Hathwar's parents told ABC News that nobody in their family has ever competed in anything like a spelling bee, and while they are very proud of their son, they said it's entirely his choice to continue to hone his skills.

"Coming this far at this point is a big achievement for him," said Roopa, who added that it's his choice whether he goes on after this competition.

Hathwar's little brother, 5-year-old Jairam, told ABC News that he's "not sure yet" if he'll go into spelling like his big brother.

Make no mistake about it, Sriram loves to spell, but he wants everyone to know he likes other things, too: baseball, piano and geography.

"Maybe next time I'll try a geography bee," said Sriram, who explained that he was excited when he was once asked to spell "schuss" at a previous bee because of his other hobby: downhill skiing.

"It means skiing in German," he clarified, adjusting his blue speller's ribbon pinned to his shirt.

As for other young spellers hoping to follow his lead, the speller has some advice.

"Don't be nervous and it's OK if you get a word wrong," Sriram said. "Just keep trying."

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