Gazette-Mail speller has high hopes for final bee (with video)

Varun Kukkillaya, 14, of Charleston, studies for the Scripps National Spelling Bee at his home, Thursday in Charleston. Kukkillaya will make his second and final appearance at the national bee this week.
Shown is a stack of materials that Varun Kukkillaya is studying as he prepares for the 2015 Scripps National Spelling Bee.
This file photo shows Kukkillaya’s previous appearance at the national bee in Washington, D.C.

His spelling career may be coming to an end, but Varun Kukkillaya has no regrets.

After failing to advance past preliminary rounds in the 2014 Scripps National Spelling Bee, the 14-year-old John Adams Middle School eighth-grader outlasted local competitors this year on a quest for redemption and a return trip to Washington, D.C.

Varun, the 2014 and 2015 Gazette-Mail Regional Spelling Bee champion, is one of 285 spellers from eight different countries who will compete in this week’s 88th Scripps National Spelling Bee.

At the start of spelling season earlier this year, more than 11 million students participated in classroom, school and local spelling bees around the country. Through the painful process of elimination, the ranks have been thinned, making each of the final 285 spellers an exclusive member of an elite group.

While the competition will be stiff, Varun hopes his past experience will help him advance farther than any Gazette-Mail speller has gone.

“I think I’m more prepared this year,” he said. “I wasn’t sure what to expect last year, but I know what to do this year.”

After a year of reflection, Varun says he rushed his studying in the months leading to last year’s bee and that he could have been better prepared. Varun was one point shy of advancing to the Scripps semifinal round last year.

Coming so close has motivated him to work that much more harder.

“I’m looking at definitions and words from different languages,” he said, adding that he’s studied French, German, Spanish and Latin words.

All that studying should come to Varun’s aid during preliminary testing on Tuesday and Wednesday when spellers take vigorous vocabulary tests in between elimination spelling rounds. Scores from those tests are coupled with scores from the spelling rounds to determine who advances to semifinals.

While he is confident in his abilities, Varun said the most nerve-wracking thing about spelling at the national bee is walking up to the microphone, hearing the word and drawing a blank.

“Last year, I said I wouldn’t get nervous, but I did,” he said.

Nerves were a factor this year as well when Varun misspelled his final word at the Kanawha County Spelling Bee. While he was named runner-up and still allowed to advance to the regional bee, Varun knows that even one slip-up at nationals can send him home.

“I hope to remain calm this year,” he said.

One way he’ll do that is focusing on the pronouncer, Jacques Bailly, and ignoring the hundreds of people in attendance and thousands more watching on television.

“That’s something people don’t see on TV,” he said. “It looks like we just go up there and spell, but it’s intense.”

Varun said so much more goes into spelling than reciting a sequence of letters in the correct order.

“There’s a whole thought process,” he said.

Most successful spellers follow a routine during competitions. Varun asks for the word to be repeated, then for a definition and language of origin. The repetition not only calms him but also buys more time to figure out the word’s correct spelling.

Varun said he would use every tactic he’s learned. Should he win, well, he can hardly describe what that would feel like.

“It’d be amazing,” he said.

While this is his last year of spelling eligibility, Varun doesn’t intend to ease up when it comes to competing. He plans to join as many academic competitions and clubs next year when he becomes a freshman at George Washington High School.

He also competes in geography bees and is a championship-level chess player. He plays tennis and is involved in his school’s robotics club, student council and junior civitans.

Varun and his family left for Washington, D.C. on Sunday for a speller orientation. Today, Varun have some time to prepare for the bee, which officially starts Tuesday. He’ll also have time to relax and meet other spellers at a Memorial Day barbecue sponsored by Scripps.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee has three components: preliminaries, semifinals and the championship round.

All 285 spellers will participate in the preliminary testing and spelling round on Tuesday and Wednesday, but only 50 can advance to the semifinal round, which starts Thursday. Only 12 may advance to the championship round.

All Wednesday and Thursday rounds will be televised on ESPN networks. A complete schedule can be found at

Varun’s appearance in the national bee is sponsored by the Gazette-Mail, the West Virginia Automobile and Truck Dealers Association and Dolan and Kalaskey Orthodontics.

In addition to an all-expense-paid trip to the nation’s capital, he won a $2,500 college savings account from state treasurer John Perdue’s SMART529 program, courtesy of The Hartford.

For live, up-to-date coverage of the bee and Varun’s progress, follow @samueljspeciale on Twitter.

Contact writer Samuel Speciale at or 304-348-4886.

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