NATONAL HARBOR, Md. - Snehaa Ganesh Kumar, the top-returning speller in the 2016 Scripps National Spelling Bee, is setting aside her budding political interest to improve on her fourth-place finish from last year’s Bee.
In Snehaa’s first Bee appearance in 2015, she made it to the ninth round of spelling before the word ‘oflag’ tripped up the then-seventh grader from Sacramento. Flustered by the timer, Snehaa gave the spelling a-u-f-l-a-h-g.
Snehaa’s time and interest goes well beyond the dictionary. She spends time volunteering on the Sacramento County Youth Commission, which represents the county’s youth population to members of local government.
Snehaa joined the commission last year, as she and other young people aged 12 to 18 contribute in various community projects.
“We volunteer at a number of runs and activities to help,” Snehaa said. “We talk about youth issues and stuff. We meet once a month, and outside of the meetings, we volunteer.
“It is really cool because there are people from all around Sacramento County and you can see what is going on around the whole county.”
One year following her fourth-place finish, Snehaa has the ability to win this year’s Spelling Bee. Snehaa speaks four languages, and has four local Spanish spelling bee wins. Along with English and Spanish, she is fluent in Tamil and is learning French.
“Last year, I got to know how everything works, and there is a timer and that is why I missed it on the word I got out on,” Snehaa said. “I just freaked out and went blank, so I just gave a random spelling because I couldn’t think. That taught me not to freak out about the timer and keep calm.”
Snehaa is one of three spellers returning this year out of the 10 who made it to the primetime part of last year’s finals. Snehaa said she tried to block out all of the distractions around her, except for her mom.
“I ignore everything because if I think this many people are watching me, I will freak out even more,” Snehaa said. “It is just me, the judges and my mom.”
Snehaa’s mother, Vijaya Soundarya, coaches her daughter.
“We go through thousands of words,” Soundarya said. “ I kind of know if my daughter knows the word or not.”
Snehaa said she helps prepare for the Bee by reading the dictionary, seeing if there are words that she does not know.
“I make a list of the words I don’t know and study it, study it, study it,” Snehaa said.
Justin Boggs is a writer for the E.W. Scripps National Desk.Follow him on Twitter @jjboggs or on Facebook.