For Fairfax Co. student competing in national contest, spelling is family affair

Seventh grader Ankita Balaji is competing in the national spelling bee. (WTOP/Scott Gelman)

When Ankita Balaji’s sister, Akshita, was in third grade, she decided to pick up the list for the school spelling bee and start studying.

She was a first grader at the time, and watched as her sibling went on to win that spelling bee. Intrigued by the challenge, she filed it away as something she wanted to pursue. The elements and language patterns used to make up words fascinated her.

In third grade, Balaji won her school spelling bee for the first time. Technophile was the winning word.

Since then, and with help from her sister and family members, Balaji has competed in dozens more spelling bees. Now a seventh grader at Rachel Carson Middle School in Herndon, Virginia, she’s preparing to participate in the Scripps National Spelling Bee at National Harbor in Maryland next week.

In March, she won the 2024 Fairfax County Spelling Bee.

“There are dancers, and there are singers, and then there are actors,” Balaji said. “We’re spellers, so we give up a lot for this.”

Balaji spends six hours every day practicing spelling during the week, and up to eight hours a day over the weekend. Spelling bees usually provide study lists from which words will be selected, but she also uses other lists of words compiled together to create word sets. Each set has 500 words, she said.

Balaji’s parents and sister usually help with the process. Her sister, Akshita, now attends Westfield High School and competed in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 2019 and 2021. She won the Fairfax County Spelling Bee three times.

The two often sit together, and Akshita helps Ankita figure out language patterns, word roots and stems.

When she’s preparing alone, Ankita uses Quizlet or other websites.

“Studying itself, it’s just a lot of work, but I am willing to put in that work,” she said. “It’s just fun.”

Entering the Fairfax County Spelling Bee, which the Fairfax County Council PTA hosted, Balaji was nervous. When she gets nervous on stage, Balaji said she prays. She also considered her sister’s advice, to only focus on her words and not try to spell anyone else’s words in her head.

That strategy proved to be effective. She successfully spelled the word “Zanni” and won the competition.

Since her sister started competing in the county spelling bees, her family celebrated success with Sweet Frog frozen yogurt. But when Ankita started participating, the celebrations evolved to include dinner at Cheesecake Factory and then dessert at Sweet Frog.

“It felt so surreal to finally get what I’ve been working for, for so long,” Ankita said. “I felt so relieved and proud of myself for how far I’ve come.”

Ahead of the national contest, Ankita said she’s hoping to advance beyond the preliminaries and reach the semifinals.

“It’s a really big opportunity for me, and I’m really grateful to have that,” she said.

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Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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