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As Top Spellers In North Texas Age Out Of Bees, They Turn To Coaching In Retirement

“Koinonia,” a noun meaning a body of believers or spiritual communion, is the last word Karthik Nemmani spelled correctly to win this year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Before that, the 14 year-old from McKinney correctly spelled “haecceitas” to be the last North Texan standing on stage. The word means the status of being an individual or a particular nature — in other words, individuality.

“To be on the top level, you have to really work hard and it requires a lot of perseverance and focus,” Karthik said.

North Texas is home to three of the four top finishers in last month’s bee in Washington D.C. The second- and third-place finishers were from Frisco and Flower Mound, respectively.

They’ve not only spent untold hours studying words they’ll likely never use, they’ve also received intense coaching — some from paid professionals.

Learning from the pros

Just weeks after his victory, Karthik sits on the living room couch in his parents’ home. He’s loved words most of life. His mom says he was spelling words like “iguana” by age 2 and a half and knew the whole alphabet by then.

When it comes to competing in spelling bees, he learned about hard work the hard way.

“I participated in other bees and I didn’t study as much as I did now and I didn’t perform all that well in other bees," Karthik said. "So I realized I had to study more.” 

Credit Scripps National Spelling Bee / Flickr Creative Commons
Flickr Creative Commons
Karthik Nemmani (foreground) and Naysa Modi (background), both from North Texas, were the final two competitors in this year's Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington D.C.

That meant learning a thousand words an hour — 3,000 words a day, every day. To get there, he got help from a seasoned pro, Grace Walters. She’s 16. She was a top national speller in the private Christian school spelling circuit. She’s retired from bees now and coaches kids from her parents’ home in Conroe, Texas.

“I love to help,” Grace said. “I guess teaching is my passion, and service is what I live for so I just… I love to see these kids do well.”

Karthik’s thankful to Grace for helping him learn more words faster. He’s also thanked GeoSpell Academy in Plano for its help. The business sells spelling bee study books. Vijay Reddy and wife, Geetha Manku, formed the company three years ago, after their son, Chetan, made it to the National Spelling Bee finals in 2013

Now 18, Chetan studies at the University of Texas at Dallas. He occasionally coaches spelling bee competitors. Mostly, he helps his parents improve the guidebooks they originally prepared for him. 

“I basically tested a lot of the software,” Chetan said. “I was the guinea pig — the first person to use all of the software that my mom created. And now they use it for other spellers.”

Parents are the first teachers

Before families of young spellers shell out anywhere from $40 to a couple hundred bucks an hour for a coach, they get free help. These spellers’ first coaches are their parents, says Valerie Miller with the National Spelling Bee.

“That has been the long tradition and the most prevalent form of coaching that you would see in a spelling program,” Miller said. “That has expanded to not only include the parents but also teachers.”   

Miller says as competitors have gotten better, words tougher, and technology more sophisticated, so have coaches, who are typically former top-tier spelling bee participants.

“These are kids who are entrepreneurial. They have a skill set and they have a potential audience out there,” Miller said. “They take advantage of technology that is available now with Skype and FaceTime to reach across geographic boundaries in order to connect with kids who are wanting to get some tips on ways to better prepare.”

Naysa Modi’s first spelling bee tips came from her father, Nayan Modi.  

“We make a plan,” Nayan said. “We strategize on the weak areas. We focus on that more.”

Credit Scripps National Spelling Bee / Flickr Creative Commons
Flickr Creative Commons
Naysa Modi, 12, participates in the Scripps National Spelling Bee finals on May 31, 2018 in Washington D.C.

His 12-year-old daughter, Naysa, came in second place in this year’s National Spelling Bee. She just wrapped up seventh grade in Frisco, and one day, wants to be a neurosurgeon. She’s loved words and reading her whole life, having finished all seven "Harry Potter" books by second grade. 

Her dad coaches more than spelling. He helps with other questions, like how hard she studies for spelling bees.

“Hours wise, I feel like in the fall, on a weekday, maybe like five, four to five [hours],” Naysa said. 

She pauses, as Dad interjects, correcting her.

“OK, fine — like three to four hours,” she admitted.  

After all those hours, coming in second was tough, Naysa says. 

“When you don’t win, you instantly feel really disappointed and angry and frustrated, but like really, really sad,” she said. “You either can take anger in a bad way or a good way. You can either use it to knock yourself down or pick yourself back up.”

So, for Naysa, coming back is a no-brainer.

As she enters eighth grade, Naysa has just one more shot at the National Bee before she ages out. Then, she says, she’ll join other top spellers and retire from competition to become yet another paid spelling bee coach.

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.