Spelling Bee

Rising 9th grader Akshita Balaji has always found herself fascinated with spelling bees and competitions. Now, her latest achievement is another feather in her cap. 

Balaji tied for 21st place in the Scripps National Spelling Bee semifinals, a higher finish than in 2019, when she finished 51st. The competition was canceled in 2020 as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

Born in the United States, Balaji’s interest in spelling began at an early age. While living in India for two years, she participated in a spelling competition as a first grader and took first place. After returning to the United States in 2012, she decided to continue competing. 

“I was so small, and we thought maybe just something happened. But in third grade, I kind of just wanted to try it out, see how it worked,” said Balaji. 

As a third-grader, Balaji won her class spelling bee at McNair Elementary School. The following year, she won not only her class spelling bee but the school-wide competition. 

After winning the Fairfax County Spelling Bee for the second time in three years, Balaji made her way to the national stage again, becoming the first student in Fairfax County in at least a decade to make it that far in the national competition. Additionally, Balaji was one of two Virginia students to grace the field. 

Balaji’s mother, Sumitra Sampath, says that it was while they were in India that they discovered that Akshita had a special gift. 

“The instructor called me and said that this was the first time anybody in the spelling center had ever gotten a perfect score and won,” said Sampath. “They said your daughter is gifted, so please pursue it further, and it all came from there.”

Sampath says she’s very proud of how far Akshita has come and believes her future is brighter than ever. 

“She picked up the words herself, and she studied,” Sampath said. “It was pretty hectic for us for the last few years, as this has been her life, but it’s very rewarding.”

Hectic would be an understatement. Sampath says her daughter’s study schedule consisted of at least eight hours a day of studying, close to 6,000 words, in addition to her schoolwork at Rachel Carson Middle School while also studying on weekends. That meant missing out on several events such as gatherings and birthday parties—a considerable compromise with a big prize. 

This year, the competition was held virtually at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in Washington D.C. Participants were given their own laptops while having proctors and being required to wear headsets. 

Balaji says that though she didn’t make the finals, she was happy with how far she has come. 

“I learned that sometimes stuff happens, and they don’t go exactly as you plan them,” said Balaji. “So you just have to go in with a clear mind and not have any expectations.”

Balaji will be attending Westfield High School in the fall.

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