Rishidharan “Rishi” Jayakumar will do anything for his little sister.
Unless, of course, there’s a spelling trophy at stake.
When the siblings from Mooresville found themselves the final two standing at a regional championship spelling bee hosted by the Carolina Panthers earlier this year, the 13-year-old out-spelled 7-year-old Harini Jayakumar with the word “swidden.” Its meaning? A method of clearing land by slashing and burning.
“It was kind of tough because I knew I had to beat my sister,” Rishi said. “She was very sad. But I told her, it’s OK, we’re still going to nationals together. But my friends? They gave me a hard time. They said, ‘I can’t believe you did that to your sister.’”
Rishi and Harini will compete beginning Tuesday with preliminaries in the 2022 Scripps National Spelling Bee. The siblings, who are both fluent in three languages (English, Tamil and Kannada), go to different schools, which provided the opportunity to compete against each other in regionals.
Rish is a seventh-grade student at The Brawley School. Harini is a fourth-grade student in The Langtree Charter Academy. Both are in Mooresville.
“It’s not about who wins. It’s the journey. It’s the process,” dad Jay Jayakumar said. “They’ve learned so much, and we’re very proud of them.”
Rishi and Harini, with dozens of other children in the age range of 7 to 15, will vie this week for a $50,000 prize and title of Bee Champion at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland. They’re one of multiple sets of siblings competing this year.
The finals will air live at 8 p.m. Thursday on ION and Bounce.
“I’m anxious about being on stage,” Harini said.
Rishi’s spelling bee journey began in the first grade when he won the school competition competing against fifth graders. When Harini started seeing her brother in local and regional bees, she was inspired to pursue the same path.
Both are natural spellers, their dad says.
“We study for about three hours every night,” said Harini, who also likes to draw and play volleyball and softball.
Rishi added, “We try to study as much as we can with all the time we have, especially when spelling season starts around December. It pays off a lot. You have to sacrifice a lot of things if you choose to study as much as we do.”
Rishi, who likes to play tennis and soccer and has a collection of Rubik’s cubes, competed in the 2021 National Spelling Bee. He tied for 59th place.
“I was overwhelmed,” Rishi said. “I didn’t realize how big it was. It was pretty stressful.”
He works with a spelling coach, who taught him how to approach a word and learn spelling patterns. Harini exposes herself to as many words as possible. The duo like to quiz each other and, sometimes, get competitive.
“People may think there is a sibling rivalry, but there isn’t,” the dad said. “Rishi assists her in spelling studies, and they help each other.”
Rishi and Harini are two of 234 participants in the 2022 National Spelling Bee. Harini is one of five children under 10 years old who will compete.
Jay said spelling taught his children commitment and how to follow through on personal responsibility.
“We didn’t ever talk about them both being in the top position until it became reality,” he said. “When it did happen, it was a dream come true.”
Rishi gave his sister advice for this week that includes trying not to get nervous on stage because “that will really mess you up.” Meanwhile, Harini’s advice for her brother is two words: G-O-O-D L-U-C-K.
For Rishi, he’s happy Harini will be competing, too. After all, “family” is his favorite word.
“Family is important, and they should always be by your side,” he said. “They are a source of motivation.”
This story was originally published May 31, 2022 6:30 AM.