'Try not to be nervous': Suburban spelling bee champs who've been to nationals have tips for handling it

  • Atman Balakrishnan of Hinsdale spells his word correctly during the third round of the 2018 Scripps National Spelling Bee -- as far as he got. Atman, 12, will return to compete in this year's contest in May, with lessons learned.

    Atman Balakrishnan of Hinsdale spells his word correctly during the third round of the 2018 Scripps National Spelling Bee -- as far as he got. Atman, 12, will return to compete in this year's contest in May, with lessons learned. Associated Press

  • Pranav Kollu of Algonquin reacts after spelling his word during the second round of last year's Scripps National Spelling Bee. Pranav, now 12, will return to participate in the national competition in May.

    Pranav Kollu of Algonquin reacts after spelling his word during the second round of last year's Scripps National Spelling Bee. Pranav, now 12, will return to participate in the national competition in May. Associated Press

  • Plum Grove Junior High School eighth-grader Calvin Franke will compete a second time in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in May. Here, he is participating in the Palatine Township Elementary District 15 bee in January.

    Plum Grove Junior High School eighth-grader Calvin Franke will compete a second time in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in May. Here, he is participating in the Palatine Township Elementary District 15 bee in January. Courtesy of District 15

  • Former national spelling bee champion Balu Natarajan, right, of Hinsdale poses for a photograph with his son, Atman Balakrishnan, as they look at Natarajan's winning word at the 1985 Scripps National Spelling Bee during last year's competition. Atman, 12, returns for his second national competition in May.

    Former national spelling bee champion Balu Natarajan, right, of Hinsdale poses for a photograph with his son, Atman Balakrishnan, as they look at Natarajan's winning word at the 1985 Scripps National Spelling Bee during last year's competition. Atman, 12, returns for his second national competition in May. Associated Press

  • Atman Balakrishnan, a seventh-grader at Hinsdale Middle School, with his father, Balu Natarajan, the 1985 national spelling bee champion, after winning the DuPage County regional spelling bee last month. Atman will compete for the second time at nationals in May.

    Atman Balakrishnan, a seventh-grader at Hinsdale Middle School, with his father, Balu Natarajan, the 1985 national spelling bee champion, after winning the DuPage County regional spelling bee last month. Atman will compete for the second time at nationals in May. Courtesy of Meenakshi Natarajan

  • Atman Balakrishnan, a seventh-grader at Hinsdale Middle School, with his father, Balu Natarajan, the 1985 spelling bee champion, during last year's Scripps National Spelling Bee. Atman will compete for the second time at nationals in May.

    Atman Balakrishnan, a seventh-grader at Hinsdale Middle School, with his father, Balu Natarajan, the 1985 spelling bee champion, during last year's Scripps National Spelling Bee. Atman will compete for the second time at nationals in May. Courtesy of Meenakshi Natarajan

  • Cambridge Lakes Charter School sixth-grader Pranav Kollu won the Kane County regional spelling bee for the second straight year. The Algonquin resident will also compete in the national bee.

    Cambridge Lakes Charter School sixth-grader Pranav Kollu won the Kane County regional spelling bee for the second straight year. The Algonquin resident will also compete in the national bee. Courtesy of Lakshmi Tadi

 
 
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Logan Gouss, a sixth-grader from Wilmette District 39, is a contender for the national spelling bee contest.

A year ago, word roots and vocabulary tripped up suburban champion spellers Atman Balakrishnan and Pranav Kollu on the national stage.

Now, they join Calvin Franke, an eighth-grader at Plum Grove Junior High School in Rolling Meadows, in prepping to make a second run at winning the Scripps National Spelling Bee in May.

Atman, a seventh-grader at Hinsdale Middle School; Pranav, a sixth-grader at Cambridge Lakes Charter School in Pingree Grove; and Franke, the two-time state spelling bee champion, will be joined at nationals by suburban spelling bee champs Samantha Gass, an eighth-grader at Charles J. Caruso Middle School in Deerfield; and Bob Gerloff of Northwood Middle School in Woodstock.

Atman and Pranav -- both eliminated in the third round of last year's nationals -- say they are much more confident about their chances this time around and have some tips to offer fellow contestants.

"My advice would be to be confident and try not to be nervous ... and study more word parts," said Atman, 12, who won the DuPage County spelling bee last month after 10 rounds by correctly spelling "arbitrage" and "raclette." It was Atman's second consecutive first-place finish at the county bee.

Atman -- son of Balu Natarajan, who competed in the national spelling bee twice before becoming the 1985 champion -- failed the written portion of the national contest last year with mistakes on 12 of 26 questions. He said while he knew how to spell a lot of words, his vocabulary wasn't developed enough.

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"I realized that I was memorizing (individual words) instead of studying patterns and roots," Atman said.

For the past year, Atman said, he has been studying four hours a day, six days a week, and eight to 10 hours on Saturdays to prepare for the nationals. He said he has built his vocabulary by learning up to 30,000 new words, as well as their roots and language patterns.

"I'm very excited," said Atman, who expects his schedule to get "crazier" closer to nationals. "I feel a lot less nervous than last year. I probably will have far less distractions this time. I'm familiar with everything, the environment of being there and the feelings that go along with it."

Nervousness comes with the territory, said Pranav, 12, of Algonquin, who last week won Kane County's spelling bee for the second consecutive year by giving the correct meaning for "pinafore." It typically takes him a few rounds to relax, he said.

"The fear of failure, that was probably the most nerve-wracking thing last time," said Pranav, who prepares two to four hours daily by studying roots and vocabulary -- he tripped up on the word "conscientious" at last year's competition. "I'm not as nervous and I understand what I'm going into."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"I'd say try your hardest," he advises. "If you do make it there, that's an accomplishment."

The competition begins with preliminaries May 27, followed by three rounds of onstage spelling.

The final round begins at 8:30 p.m. May 30 at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland.

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