The reigning national spelling champion is a 14-year-old kid whose one-liners kept everyone laughing a year ago. His parents moved to the United States from central India, and he wants to be a neurosurgeon when he grows up.
Last year's runner-up — and one of this year's favorites at the Scripps National Spelling Bee — is an all-business 13-year-old Indian-American boy from Michigan. He's also set his sights on neurosurgery.
Another favorite expected to be onstage for Thursday night's nationally televised finals is a 13-year-old Kansas girl with a sweet smile and a last name that's a spelling challenge unto itself. You guessed it: Her family comes from India, and she wants to be a neurosurgeon.
"Is that right?" said Naresh Chand, bursting out in laughter. "That's a coincidence. That's a big coincidence."
Naresh is the father of Sidharth Chand, whose mishap in the final round last year allowed Sameer Mishra to claim the title. Trailing closely behind both was Kavya Shivashankar, a three-time finalist who tied for fourth. The three have come to know each other through the bee — spellers are a tight-knit community, keeping tabs on each other through e-mails and instant messages throughout the year — but it never occurred to any of them that they share more than a heritage.
"They only want (to be) neurosurgeons. How many people are going to go for neurosurgery?" Sidharth's mother, Sunita, said with a shrug and a laugh.
Those who follow the bee see the Indian-neurosurgeon quirk as less of a coincidence. In the same way that Hakeem Olajuwon's success in the NBA inspired a generation of Nigerians to take up basketball, Sidharth, Sameer and Kavya can trace their roots to Balu Natarajan of Chicago, who in 1985 became the first Indian-American national bee champion.
Balu inspired others, who in turn became role models for more would-be champions. Kavya's heroine is Nupur Lala, who won the bee in 1999 and was featured in the documentary "Spellbound." Sameer was motivated when his friend Anurag Kashyap won in 2005 and was coached by older sister Shruti, a three-time national bee participant. Altogether there have been eight Indian-American champions, including six of the past 10.
While it's tempting to suggest the spellers were just showing off by picking a long word as a potential occupation, their choice of neurosurgery isn't surprising. The 293 competitors in Washington this week are bright kids flush with big goals. In a survey conducted by the bee, physician was listed as the No. 1 career ambition, followed by author, lawyer, scientist and engineer.
Sameer, for his part, thinks his mind is perfectly wired to study the brain.
"It's really interesting how I can memorize a lot of words, (while) some people have a knack for logic for math and stuff," Sameer said in a telephone interview from his home in Indiana. "It's a really interesting aspect of the brain."
Kavya's father said his daughter became fascinated with medicine in 2005, when she won a spelling bee that featured nothing but medical terms. Kavya was also quick to point out that her idol, Lala, is now a research assistant in the brain and cognitive sciences lab at MIT.
"I've always been interested in how the body works, and especially the brain," Kavya said. "I always thought it was really interesting."
Sidharth is a different case altogether. He came home one day as a fifth-grader with news he had won his school's bee. His mother had no idea what he was talking about, but from that day on, spelling became his passion.
He's one of the rare spellers wearing a suit and tie for his photograph in the official bee guide. Sidharth seemed nervous Tuesday and skipped the annual speller's barbecue on Monday to study declining an interview so he wouldn't be distracted from reams of pages of words and notes. He allowed a reporter into his hotel room just long enough to be photographed, so the origin of the neurosurgeon ambition listed in his bio remained a mystery — even to his parents.
"He doesn't have any friends from the spelling circle," Sunita said. "He's not a very social kind of a person, so where this neurosurgeon business comes from, I don't have a clue."