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Young spelling bee champ is a girl of many words

Snigdha Nandipati used to spell words from billboards. Then came actual competition. Flashcards from an online dictionary helped her capture the national spelling bee title.

June 03, 2012|By Matt Stevens, Los Angeles Times
  • Snigdha Nandipati, 14, of San Diego gets a big hug from her younger brother Sujan moments after winning the 85th Scripps National Spelling Bee in Oxon Hill, Md. Her winning word was "guetapens."
Snigdha Nandipati, 14, of San Diego gets a big hug from her younger brother… (Chuck Myers / McClatchy-Tribune )

Snigdha Nandipati had a personal photographer following her for much of the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

When the TV camera wasn't looking, there was 10-year-old Sujan, snapping picture after picture of his big sister the national spelling champion while she met with ESPN commentators and received interview preparation.

"He took the camera from me and he doesn't want to give it back," father Krishnarao said last week. "He really wanted his sister to win."

And when 14-year-old Snigdha did win on Thursday night, a national TV audience was treated to Sujan racing onto the stage and clasping his arms around his sister's waist. "My family has been really supportive," Snigdha said, so it was only fitting that they shared the stage with her as the celebratory confetti rained down.

The grandparents flew in from India to watch her compete. Sujan tracked his sister like the paparazzi, and Krishnarao watched as his own hours of work paid off.

Krishnarao, a software consultant by trade, created a computer program that extracted information from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary and created PDF flashcards for some of the most challenging words. He said he printed about 30,000 flashcards this year to help his daughter prepare.

"She tries to keep her school grades A-plus, and at the same time she does this," Krishnarao said. "It's pretty impressive."

Snigdha said her father-daughter training really began when she was in kindergarten. Back then, she said, her father would read words on signs and billboards during the drive to school and she would spell them back. She started competing in spelling bees as early as fourth grade, and won one a year later.

"Then we realized she had the potential," Krishnarao said.

That's old news to school officials such as Dan Lang, middle school dean of students at Francis Parker School in San Diego, where Snigdha will return to classes this week. Lang was Snigdha's seventh-grade English teacher last year and asked students to read "The Outsiders" over the summer. But on the first day of class, Snigdha arrived with an entire report, complete with artwork, an essay and a reflection.

That was not part of the assignment, Lang said, but Snigdha wanted to share her excitement about the book. And yet, "at school," he added, "she's just another kid."

"She's not sitting by herself at lunch going over her flashcards," Lang said. "She is really excellent across the board. She participates in all we have to offer."

Snigdha's initiative drove her to start a spelling bee at Francis Parker, which had a Math Field Day, Science Olympiad and other programs, but not the one competition she really wanted, Lang said.

Krishnarao said his daughter preferred to research word etymology and other history when studying rather than simply trying to memorize as many words as she could. You practice Latin, he told her, for medical terms and Greek for words out of mythology. It was all great practice, he said, for anything, including medical school. For years now, Snigdha has said she wants to be a neurosurgeon.

"I've always liked biology, and I'm really interested in how the brain works," she said. "There's so many things going on."

At least for now, though, her brain can forget some of those 30,000 words and instead work on how to spend her $30,000 cash prize.

matt.stevens@latimes.com

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