Is Spelling a Sport?

Two Spelling Bee national champions tell-all on the eve of the 2018 Scripps National Spelling Bee.

You are on a stage.

Beads of sweat gather on your forehead as you squint into the lights at the kindly old man in front of you speaking softly into the microphone. You ask him to repeat the definition.

“A close comrade.”

But there are no comrades here. You’re alone in the spotlight, your final opponent seated just behind you. Your eyes glance out into the hazy image you’re sure was once an audience. You can make out shapes, and your parents are out there somewhere, but right now it’s just you and the lights.

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“It’s a noun, of German origin.”

Your insides tighten. Have you seen this word before? You’ve spent half your life preparing for this moment, studying up to six hours a day. You’ve been on this Spelling Bee stage before, only to come up short. This time, you’re the favorite. Everyone expects you to win. You’re long past remembering how many words you’ve spelled. But only one word matters at this moment.

You faintly notice the lights around you fade from green to yellow to a sickening red. Now or never. You begin to spell.

K-O-R… B-R-U-I-T-E-R.

You stop.

The room fills with a dreadful silence, if only for a moment.


The silence is pierced.

A bell has an innocent, pleasant sound. A ubiquitous one.

Ubiquitous: present, found everywhere. U-B-I-Q-U-I-T-O-U-S.

But a bell is not ubiquitous in your life, nor is it pleasant. At a spelling bee, the bell is death. The bell means you got it wrong. It means your bee is over.

Your name is Sriram Hathwar, and you have just spelled the final word of your spelling career.

The crowd gasps as the sound of the bell echoes in the auditorium.

“Corpsbruder is spelled C-O-R-P-S-B-R-U-D-E-R.”

And just like that, it’s over.

At one time, Sriram was the youngest speller ever to reach the Scripps National Spelling Bee. At age eight, he remembers feeling like he had nothing to lose and everything to gain. Now in 2014, he’s an eighth-grader in his final year of eligibility. At first, he spent hours learning the basics and fundamentals. Lately, he’s spent his time just going through the dictionary for fun, staying up late, pulling all-nighters for one last shot at the crown.

None of that matters now.

Disappointed, Sriram returns to his seat. Because it’s down to the final two, the Bee is technically not over; his opponent Ansun must spell a word correctly to win. His word is antigropelos, a Greek word for waterproof leggings. Surely he knows this one.



And just like that, Sriram is back in it. Like a missed Steph Curry free throw at the buzzer, he’s LeBron with another shot. He’s got this now.

Skandhas, a Sanskrit word for the five elements of Buddhism. Feijoada, a Brazilian stew. Sdrucciola, an Italian triple rhyme. Thymelici, a Greek theater chorus. Encaenia, a recitation of poems.






Sriram nails every word. He and Ansun are on fire now, going furiously back and forth. There’s just one problem: the good folks at Scripps have literally run out of words for them to spell. There are just three words remaining on their list. If he and Ansun each spell their next word right, they will be declared co-champions, the first in 50 years at the National Bee.

Sriram’s final word is stichomythia, a classical Greek dialogue of altercation delivered by actors in alternating lines. His eyes light up.


This time, the silence is golden.

Ansun spells his word correctly too, and the duo are declared co-champions! Sriram lifts the trophy over his head as confetti falls around them. The ESPN crew rushes the stage for interviews. The pair will soon make the media rounds, competing against Jimmy Kimmel, spelling against President Obama in the White House.

Sriram Hathwar is the 87th Scripps National Spelling Bee champion after hours, weeks, years of training.

But is he an athlete?

I interviewed Sriram along with 2002 champ Pratyush Buddiga to learn more about their experiences. These are their stories…

Sriram is now a high school senior living in New York. I spoke with him during study hall, between a couple of finals.

When Sriram first made it to the National Bee he was a second grader, competing against kids six and seven years his senior. He is the spelling version of LeBron James, his favorite basketball player. He entered the arena at the earliest of ages and held his own, then kept getting better and better.

“I don’t think a lot of people understand just how long reading four to six hours of dictionary pages is…”

Sriram trained with his coaches, known to him as Mom and Dad. He joked that his mom helped prepare him for the Bee by quizzing him, while his dad prepped him for the strenuous mental aspects because he kept irritating him. Sriram began studying at the start of elementary school and continued relentlessly until his trophy-hoisting moment. Like any athlete, Sriram trained for hours at a time. At his peak, Sriram told me he studied the dictionary four to six hours a day, searching for that one last word he might need on competition day. “I don’t think a lot of people understand just how long reading four to six hours of dictionary pages is,” he told me.

Besides the dictionary, Sriram says it helps to read books and look for new words and meanings. Like any good speller, Sriram isn’t just memorizing words aimlessly. It starts with the roots: Greek, Latin, French, along with his favorites, Portuguese and Dutch. He likes these two because of their quirky spellings, like the Dutch-derived Afrikaans fish “galjoen,” pronounced gal-YOON. His least favorite language of origin? Unknown or trademarks, of course. Without any language hints, you can only hope you’ve seen the word before, somewhere amidst the 480,000+ words in Merriam Webster’s New International Dictionary. Sriram’s brother Jairam spelled a trademarked word correctly to win his Bee.

2002 champ Pratyush Buddiga did plenty of training, too. Like most spellers, he started with the limited booklet of words given at the lower levels, but he knew he’d have to dive into the entire dictionary if he wanted to win the National Bee. In his final year of competition, he sometimes spent 12 hours a day on weekends studying. He was focused enough on his task that he wasn’t even fazed by being on ESPN, outside of his anxiety keeping him from eating nothing but a bag of gummy worms on competition day — perhaps something in common with Marshawn Lynch and Lamar Odom.

Pratyush became a professional poker player, and he still won’t eat during big tournaments. Though he promised me he’s shaken the gummy worm habit… mostly.

There’s one big difference between spelling bees and more traditional athletic contests: the type of competition.

“Spellers don’t feel like they’re competing against one another; they’re competing against the dictionary.”

As Sriram explained it, spelling is unique because there is nobody playing defense. In football, if your opponent is trying to score a touchdown, your team can try to stop them. Not so in spelling. At a Bee, you’re always on offense, just trying to see how far you can get. Spellers don’t feel like they’re competing against one another; they’re competing against the dictionary.

Pratyush remembers his winning moment, and he recalls runner-up Steven Nalley actually pumping his fist in celebration for him, a completely genuine action. When Sriram tied for the win with Ansun, he was not disappointed. He felt a tie recognized the equally immense skill of the minds at that level. Spellers know they are among the top 0.0001% in the world at what they do, so they appreciate one another’s efforts. It’s impressive more than cutthroat.

But that doesn’t mean these guys aren’t incredibly competitive.

After winning the National Bee, competitors must retire from spelling, and both Sriram and Pratyush remember trying to fill the competitive void. Pratyush threw himself immediately into studying for Geography Bee and won the high school version a few years later, and he eventually became a poker pro. He has over $6 million in lifetime earnings. “I just love competing too much,” he told me, “It’s in my blood.”

Sriram competed in Geography Bee and Math Counts. He’s not competitive with other people as much as against his own constant thirst for knowledge. One way he’s looked to fill that void is by helping other spellers. Sriram won the Diamond Business Challenge with an app called Spell For Success that helps spellers create word lists and study for the competition. He and his brother Jairam coauthored a book called Words From the Champs with an account of their training and preparation and a list of over 10,000 handpicked words to help spellers.

Oh, and about that brother…

Like many brothers, Sriram and Jairam have competed their entire lives. Until recently, the Bee allowed only one speller from each region to compete nationally. Sriram and Jairam had to compete for the same spot. They finished first and second one year, first and third the next. Sriram got him both times, but Jairam would go on to win Nationals himself after Sriram’s championship.

Sriram told me he was more nervous watching his brother compete than spelling himself. When he competed, he always knew whether or not he could spell the word. As a spectator, he could only read body language and hope for the best. Sriram admitted there were a couple times he didn’t know one of Jairam’s words but hoped his brother did.

Jairam did know them, and like Sriram, was declared co-champion in 2016. Sriram told me he was happy Jairam won… but glad that he tied for the win. Can’t let baby bro hold that “Yeah but I won outright and you only tied for yours” over you the rest of your life.

Sriram told me he was the better speller in his prime than Jairam.

Jairam was not available for comment.

So is spelling a sport? You tell me.

Sports, a noun from Middle English: a physical activity engaged in for pleasure, or a particular activity (such as an athletic game) so engaged in.


What makes something a sport?

Sports are competitive. They involve strenuous training, both physical and mental. They’re exhausting. Sports take everything out of you, as a competitor and as a spectator. They present the highest highs and the lowest lows. Sports have passionate, devoted fans. They involve experiences with coaches and teammates that mark you for the rest of your life, long past retirement.

So what exactly isn’t “sports” about spelling? I asked Sriram and Pratyush.

Pratyush laughed. He does not feel spellers are athletes, nor poker players for that matter. For Pratyush, athletic competitions involve physical prowess. Things like poker, chess, and spelling are mental contests. “ESPN is in the entertainment business, not just sports… People like watching it but I don’t think that would make it a sport, per se.” The International Olympic Committee has considered adding poker to the Olympics in recent cycles. We’ll see if that changes Pratyush’s mind.

Sriram thinks spelling is absolutely a sport. He pointed out that the brain is just another muscle you’re exercising to show its very best capabilities, and it is clear how hard elite spellers work to train their brain for the bright lights on the ultimate stage. Sriram plays basketball, ultimate Frisbee, and tennis, and he’s a huge Cavs fan. He knows what a sport is, and he says spelling is a sport.

Pratyush talked about the hard work and determination it took to become a spelling champion. He thinks the same thing that made him a great speller also makes him a great poker player: his joy in the process of improvement.

“There’s nothing I love more than going from twentieth percentile to ninety-ninth percentile in something. That journey up the mountain is the most fun part. I wake up every day excited to try to learn something new and become a master in the discipline. It’s the best feeling in the world.”

Sounds like an athlete to me.

Both Pratyush and Sriram talked repeatedly about the lifelong lessons they’ve gleaned from their spelling experience. Both of them emphasized work ethic and determination, the pursuit of excellence. Sriram talked about the lesson of perseverance. After becoming the youngest speller in Bee history, Sriram missed Nationals entirely in both 4th and 6th grade before eventually winning it all. Spelling taught him the drive to keep setting goals, to climb one summit and go on to the next.

Of course, there are more practical outlets, too. Sriram believes spelling has helped him become a better global citizen. That early exposure to languages and his time reading through the history of the English language have changed his life.

It’s probably no huge surprise that Pratyush graduated from Duke or that Sriram is headed to Princeton this fall.

Elite universities tend to recruit outstanding athletes.

Prospicience, from Latin, the act of looking forward. It was Pratyush’s winning word.


Sriram is looking forward to the finals of the 91st Scripps National Spelling Bee. He’ll be in the crowd, rooting the spellers on. This year’s Bee began with 11 million competitors, whittled down to 516 national finalists. Sriram’s cousin Srivarun is one of them, carrying on the Hathwar legacy. On Thursday evening, the final dozen or so spellers will compete for this year’s crown beginning live at 8:30 pm ET on ESPN, the Worldwide Leader in Sports. My sources tell me to anticipate a winning speller with an “S” first name.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee began in 1925, and you could probably spell some of the earliest winning words, like knack, therapy, and initials. You won’t even be able to pronounce the words these kids will see tonight, let alone spell them. See if you qualify with the online test if you dare.

Sriram will probably keep an eye on those other Finals that start Thursday night, too. He thinks the Warriors may win in six or seven, but unlike the rest of the sports world, he’s not ready to count LeBron out.

Like LeBron, Sriram has been on his last legs before, on the brink of elimination before finding new life.

With the world’s most elite athletes, you dare not give them a second chance.


Brandon Anderson
Brandon Anderson
Brandon Anderson is a senior writer and editor for Grandstand Central. As a lifelong Vikings and Cubs fan, he is perpetually waiting for the other shoe to drop. Brandon is the grandmaster czar of sports at Medium and you can find his thoughts on NBA, NFL, other non-hockey sports, and pop culture on Twitter.


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