Suburban son of 1985 spelling champ follows in his footsteps

Much has changed in world of spelling since Balu Natarajan was crowned champion of the Scripps National Spelling Bee 33 years ago.

The Hinsdale resident won the 1985 championship as a 13-year-old eighth-grader, in his third appearance at nationals. Natarajan, who finished 45th in 1983 and 63rd in 1984, became the first champion from the Chicago area after spelling "milieu" correctly.

Now his son Atman Balakrishnan, a sixth-grader at Hinsdale Middle School, is a contender in the bee, which will take place May 27 to June 1 in Washington, D.C. "The winning words now versus the winning words then, the standard has gone up dramatically," said Natarajan, 46, a sports medicine doctor and chief medical officer for Seasons Hospice and Palliative Care, which has inpatient centers in Berwyn, Chicago and Naperville. "It is much more intense now than it was back in the '80s."

Atman, 11, won the DuPage County spelling bee after correctly spelling "brachylogy" - derived from Greek meaning concise expression - and "portulaca" - derived from Latin meaning a genus of tropical flowering plants.

Natarajan said he used old-school tools to learn words, such as poring over a physical dictionary and encyclopedia. He didn't spend nearly as much time studying as Atman does.

"It was very humbling back then. This was before the spelling bee was even on ESPN," Natarajan said. "Now, it's on prime-time television so it's pretty wild the exposure that these kids get."

While it's much easier now for contestants to learn with instant access to information and resources online, the competition itself has gotten much tougher, he said.

"Now, the kids have to study 12 months out of the year," Natarajan said. "The word bank the winner has to know is so much more vast, in the order of tens of thousands (of words)."

Atman, who has been competing since third grade, trains three hours daily and six to eight hours on weekends, working with a coach the last couple of years.

"I have been increasingly giving him support," Natarajan said. "Before we had the coach's support, it was very difficult to know how much to push. We really wanted to make sure it is something he really wanted."

Atman Balakrishnan, 11, left, a sixth-grader from Hinsdale Middle School who won the DuPage County spelling bee, with his father, Balu Natarajan, 1985 national spelling bee champion, his mother, Meenakshi Balakrishnan, and his brother, Advaith, 9. Courtesy of Meenakshi Balakrishnan
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