This article was originally printed in Issue 441 of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.
Jairam Hathwar won the 2016 US Scripps National Spelling Bee. As the younger brother of Sriram—the 2014 champion—13-year-old Jairam had a model for excellence as a mental athlete. He and his brother have even co-authored a book which they hope will inspire the next generation of competitive orthographers. In this interview, Jairam shared his stories and offers insights into the training regimen required that allowed him to dominate the world’s most competitive spelling bee.
Daniel Kilov: How did you develop your interest in competitive spelling?
Jairam Hathwar: Seeing my brother participating in many spelling competitions at a very young age, and him finally hoisting the national trophy was a huge inspiration for me to attempt competitive spelling. The perks of being a national champion were abundant, whether it was being on Jimmy Kimmel Live, The Kelly and Michael Show, ESPN, etc. That made me want to follow in his footsteps and receive the recognition that he was given as well.
Daniel Kilov: Is it the sportive aspect that drives your interest or do you have a love of languages more generally?
Jairam Hathwar: Personally, I enjoy a friendly competition because it motivates me to succeed and makes we want to become better. It is definitely both aspects—I love being challenged, as well as learning language patterns, and how languages have evolved to what they are today.
Daniel Kilov: Did having a champion speller for an older sibling influence the way you related to the competition?
Jairam Hathwar: Having a sibling who had succeeded fruitfully most certainly influenced me to participate in a large-scale competition such as the Scripps National Spelling Bee. I would never have had the drive to do well in the spelling bee if it weren’t for my brother having taken part in it. There was obviously some sibling rivalry along the way, but that just fuelled my will to achieve even more.
Daniel Kilov: What are the key skills you had to acquire to become an elite speller?
Jairam Hathwar: Some skills that one learns in the process of preparing and competing in the spelling bee are dedication, perseverance, humiliation, grace, etc. Those skills are crucial when attempting such a difficult endeavour as the spelling bee. If one facet of those is missing, then that could determine who the champion will be. It is important not to forget about grace because if they wanted to just get the best speller, then they would just give a 100+ word spelling test, and whoever got the most right would win. Obviously, that isn’t the way that it is, and luck plays a large role, when so many people have put the required time and effort into studying and preparing.
Daniel Kilov: Something I’m particularly interested in is the recent string of ties in the competition. The consensus seems to be that the events are getting harder. However, the last three years have seen competitors work their way through every word on the competition list without error. What do you make of this?
Jairam Hathwar: Unlike many other competitions, like the National Geographic Bee, MATHCOUNTS, etc., the spelling bee is from a curriculum: the dictionary. If one memorises the entire dictionary, without a doubt, that person would be the champion. In this case, the participants are becoming smarter and smarter, and no matter how hard the people at Scripps try, the spelling bee will always be from a database, and whoever knows the most of it, will win. There are rule changes that Scripps has tried to incorporate, and will most likely to continue to, that will sometime sooner or later result with a single winner. I expect that Scripps will somehow figure out a way where one winner will be declared, whether it be spelling all the words in the dictionary, or having a written test.
Daniel Kilov: Have your experiences as a mental athlete influenced any other areas of your life?
Jairam Hathwar: Certainly I have become more popular at school and at social gatherings, but having to spend hours upon hours a day studying, has given me an advantage over others when preparing for a test or quiz because of the practice I’ve put into becoming an efficient learner. I have also learned to become a better critical thinker, and have broadened my knowledge of many subjects by studying for the spelling bee, which has possibly given me a slight edge over others.
Daniel Kilov: What is your fondest, funniest or quirkiest memory from the spelling bee circuit?
Jairam Hathwar: The first year I advanced to compete for the national spelling bee was a very unique experience. Because my brother had just won the previous year, I had a lot of pressure put on me to do well. After the first written test I thought that I had only gotten around three to four wrong, which most likely meant that I would advance to the semi-finals the next day. As I was consulting my brother on many that I was unsure about, I realized that I had gotten eight wrong, which most likely meant I wouldn’t make it to the semi-finals the following day. All of a sudden, my mother had gotten an email announcing that one of the questions I had answered was an alternative answer, so I had only gotten seven wrong, still very shaky that I would advance.
The next day, when they announced the semi-finalists, they stated that you could get seven wrong and advance, which made me just elated, that I had made it. Soon after, we had to take the semi-finalists’ written test, and I had gotten the best score out of everyone there, only missing two questions, which was phenomenal for such a difficult test. That meant that if I spelled my two words right the next day, I would advance to the finals. Fast forward to the next day, and I already spelled one of my words right, and I was thinking to myself what a comeback story it would be if I were to get my next word right and make it to the championship finals. I had gotten my word, ‘riegel’, and I completely blanked out on the proper spelling, even though I’d studied the word multiple times. I ended up misspelling and being eliminated from the competition, which only gave me a drive to do better the next year, which was when I won. That story was definitely a very odd experience that I will cherish for the rest of my life.
Daniel Kilov: What, if anything, do you wish people knew or appreciated about orthography? Further, what practices, techniques or habits would you recommend people adopt in their day-to-day lives?
Jairam Hathwar: I’d just want people to appreciate the time that competitors in the spelling bee put in, and understand how much some have sacrificed to be where they are. They have developed great study habits, and dedication that words can’t even begin to explain (and I’m a spelling champ!). Those lessons are important for the rest of their lives, and they should never forget them.
Daniel Kilov: How do you relate to the world of competitive spelling now that you’ve won? What’s next for you?
Jairam Hathwar: Spelling will still be very important to me, even though I’m not a participant in it anymore. I hope that more and more people give the spelling bee a try, and I hope to see them succeed, and more co-champions to be declared, which shows that people want to succeed, and that is a good thing. I hope that I can contribute to help organize spelling bees, and help people learn the many quirks of the English language. My brother and myself have co-authored a book entitled, Words From the Champs that is on Amazon, that describes both of our stories to become national champions, as well as more than 10,000 words, definitions, etymologies, part of speech, etc. n