2021 | Schools

Potomac middle school speller qualifies for national bee quarterfinals

Competition continues at noon on Tuesday

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Ananya Gautam, an eighth-grade student at Herbert Hoover Middle School in Potomac, has qualified for the quarterfinals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

via Scripps National Spelling Bee

Herbert Hoover Middle School in Potomac is buzzing with the news that one of its students has advanced to the quarterfinals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Ananya Gautam, 14, is making her second appearance in the national bee, and will compete in the second round on Tuesday afternoon.

Over the weekend, she bested hundreds of spellers from across the country in the preliminary rounds to qualify as one of the 74 who advanced to the quarterfinals. The quarterfinals will be broadcast on ESPN3 from noon to 6 p.m. on Tuesday.

In an interview on Monday night, Ananya said she’s nervous to log on and compete on Tuesday, but she trusts that she’s done her best to prepare.

“Definitely a little bit nervous, but I’m mostly excited because I know I’ve prepared, so now I’m just ready to try my best,” she said.

Her main goal is to get past the quarterfinals this year, the last time she can compete.

“I just hope to go as far as I can, and I want to do my best,” she said. “Spelling has a little bit of a luck factor, so it’s not always easy to predict the results, but as long as I know I tried my hardest, I’ll be happy with my performance.”

The semifinals are on June 27, and the finals July 8.

In 2019, Ananya, then 12 years old, tied for 51st place in the national bee. The bee was canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic.

This year, the competition is being held virtually, except for the finals, which will feature the top 10 to 12 spellers. The finals will be held July 8 at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida.

The finals are usually held in or near Washington, D.C., but were moved this year “based on the NBA’s successful bubble during the pandemic,” according to competition officials. The NBA held the end of its 2019-20 regular season and playoffs at the same ESPN complex at Walt Disney World, to keep the teams, league officials and journalists together, but isolated from others.

Ananya said she’d prefer to be competing in person, but understands it’s not possible this year and she’s safer at home. She misses meeting her fellow spellers and the camaraderie that comes with it.

But there is one perk: “There’s no in-person stage … so you don’t really have to be in front of a bunch of cameras in your face,” she said.

Ananya began spelling when she was about 5 years old, she said. She learned early that she enjoys reading, picking up the Harry Potter series when she was in kindergarten and first grade.

She competed in her first bee in kindergarten and has kept up with it ever since.

She practices and studies year-round, but January to June, it’s “spelling season.” In that six-month stretch, Ananya said, she studies about four hours per day, sometimes alone, but often with her family.

Her sister, Navya, now 18 and a sophomore in college, used to participate in bees, too.

Watching Navya was how Ananya learned she wanted to be competing, too.

Over the past decade, Ananya said, she’s learned a lot about work ethic and time management, which has helped her balance all of her activities and tasks.

As for her favorite word, Ananya said it is “haecceitas,” a Latin word that describes “the essence that makes something the kind of thing it is and makes it different from any other,” according to the dictionary.

“I really like words that reflect their meaning in some way,” Ananya said.

When she’s not spelling, Ananya is a competitive swimmer and trains three days per week. She likes to read, write, draw, paint, and play the viola.

According to her profile on the national bee website, Ananya’s favorite subject in school is math, and she is taking a college-level programming course. She has coached students on the SAT and ACT, and created a class to help students increase their scores in the verbal sections of the tests, according to the profile.

The only other competitor from Maryland to make it to the quarterfinals is Charan Bala, a 13-year-old from Columbia.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com