Beginning today, 285 of America”s best and brightest prepubescents will gather in suburban Washington, DC for the Scripps National Spelling Bee. In what is now the competition”s 89th year, the Bee has become must see TV, having grown to the point that millions of viewers tune in to ESPN to watch it.
To get a sense as to what participants will experience, HitFix spoke with someone who certainly knows – Pratyush Buddiga. In 2002, Mr. Buddiga, then just a 13-year-old kid from Colorado, won the competition by spelling the word “prospicience” (noun – the act of looking forward). Buddiga is now 27. In the years since winning, he studied at Duke, had a brief stint on Wall Street (“Hated every person I met,” he said with no hesitancy) before ultimately settling on a career as a professional poker player. But he remembers his time at the National Spelling Bee fondly, even offering advice for future contestants.
Here”s what he had to say…
How did you get involved in competitive spelling initially?
The first time I ever saw or heard about it, I saw it on TV, which is I”m sure how most people get introduced to it…I”d struggled with English when I first came over here from New Zealand because I hadn”t spoken English at home [His native tongue is Telugu]. So it was something I really worked hard at when I was 5,6,7,8…Because English was my second language, I took extra care of trying to be good at spelling and making sure I wasn”t falling behind all my other fellow classmates…I”d already started becoming a very competitive person, so this just felt like a natural outlet to maybe see what happened. I just thought, “You know what? I want to win that one day.” And four years later, I guess I did.
How did you prepare for a spelling bee? Did you prep differently for the national competition as compared to the regional or smaller tournaments?
They had this booklet called Paideia…and if you learn every word in that book you can probably win regionals…[but] it”s not enough to win nationals. I couldn”t even win state by just learning that booklet. So I talked to one of the judges at the spelling bee and I asked them, “What can I do to improve? How can I actually win state and maybe be at nationals?” And they mentioned old spelling bee word lists you could look at and…actually just getting down to the nitty gritty, going through the dictionary and learning root words…The information is a really valuable tool, of course, but for me, just seeing as many words as possible [is critical].
Your brother (Akshay Buddiga) famously fainted during the 2004 National Spelling Bee. Can you describe what the pressure is like during the competition?
There”s definitely a lot of pressure. For my brother it was more intense since I had won two years ago. He was the favorite even though it was his first time there…For me it was a little easier for sure because no one expected anything of me. For sure, when I look down at 100 cameras and I”m 12 or 13 years old, and knowing all my friends from home and cute girls are all watching me on TV made me not want to mess up, but ultimately I was able to block that out. I think that”s something that”s always come naturally to me.
Take us through the winning moment. What was running through your mind?
It was the most surreal moment ever, because when they said the word (“prospicience”), I knew I”d won because I knew the word right away…But I still went through the routine of asking questions. I didn”t want to mess up and put the cart before the horse so to speak…So it was two minutes of being there and not being there…I was most excited because [former ESPN anchors] Rich Eisen or Stu Scott would be interviewing me for SportsCenter…I think that was even more exciting to me than the thought of, “Oh, I just accomplished one of my lifelong dreams.”
Is there anything that older you would tell spelling bee version of you about competing?
I would say to not wrap up so much of your self worth and self image in the idea of being the best and winning…I”m sure that”s a problem for a lot of the kids who are competing now where they”ve worked so hard, and it”s like, “If I don”t win this, my entire last two years [of preparation] is a waste.” And that”s definitely not true.
Is there anything that”s similar between competitive poker playing and the spelling bee?
Never blame luck too much and try to focus on the things [you] can control.
What”s the best part of being a spelling bee champ?
It”s a good conversation piece. It”s the way I”m introduced probably to everyone, whether it”s someone trying to talk me up to a girl at the bar or even if I meet a new person…It”s something cool and unique that not many people can say.