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A documentary tells us why Indian Americans win Spelling Bee contests

A documentary goes behind the scenes at homes of some of the most precocious Indian-American spellers to uncover the secret to their success.

Last week, Karthik Nemmani from Texas won America’s fiercely competitive Scripps National Spelling Bee, capping it with “koinonia,” a word many are unlikely to have ever heard. The 14-year-old was the 18th Indian-American to have won the annual competition in the last 20 years – a trend that’s mystified viewers.

So how did an immigrant community that forms less than 1% of the US population emerge as the dominant force in an almost century-old, iconic American competition? Is it a special gene or extreme tiger-parenting?

Neither, it turns out.

A new documentary goes behind the scenes at homes of some of the most precocious Indian-American spellers to uncover the secret to their success: days, weeks, and months of hard work – and the whole family’s support.

Breaking the Bee, which debuted at the Cleveland International Film Festival in April, follows some of these children as they practice thousands of complex words a day, using everything from diagrams on whiteboards to lengthy Excel spreadsheets, getting the whole family involved in the process.

Breaking the Bee.

Beginning in late 2015, filmmaker Sam Rega and his team began researching, attending regional spelling bees, and meeting participants’ families. They first met speller Akash Vukoti who has made a name for himself with his outsized talent. In fact, Vukoti has been competing at local-level bees since he was two. There were other, older spellers, too, who were national-level favourites.

After producing a trailer and raising funds on Kickstarter, the team began the main production in early 2017.

“We spent a lot of time and really got to know these families,” Rega told Quartz. “So much of it was driven by the child: the child became the athlete, the parents were the coach, and the siblings were the assistant coach.”

The spellers are dedicated to the game. Between their music classes, playtime, and even meditation, they spend a couple of hours every day strategically learning spellings and definitions. The documentary shows them participating in extremely competitive regional-level spelling bees, including those run by the south Asian community itself, in rounds as engaging and nerve-wracking as the finals of extreme sports.

The film shows that despite its spelling success evoking some racist reactions on social media, the small community is only getting better at the game every year. In the 2017 Scripps bee, 25% of the 291 contenders were Indian-American, and they made up 13 out of the 15 finalists. The winner that year was an Indian-American sixth-grader named Ananya who spelled the word “marocain.”

“I couldn’t be happier with the timing of this [documentary],” Rega said. “I hope that this also opens the eyes of people, [showing] that this is a story about Americans; this is a story about them succeeding at an American event, doing it by the rules just like everyone else.”

This article first appeared on Quartz.

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Following a mountaineer as he reaches the summit of Mount Everest

Accounts from Vikas Dimri’s second attempt reveal the immense fortitude and strength needed to summit the Everest.

Vikas Dimri made a huge attempt last year to climb the Mount Everest. Fate had other plans. Thwarted by unfavourable weather at the last minute, he came so close and yet not close enough to say he was at the top. But that did not deter him. Vikas is back on the Everest trail now, and this time he’s sharing his experiences at every leg of the journey.

The Everest journey began from the Lukla airport, known for its dicey landing conditions. It reminded him of the failed expedition, but he still moved on to Namche Bazaar - the staging point for Everest expeditions - with a positive mind. Vikas let the wisdom of the mountains guide him as he battled doubt and memories of the previous expedition. In his words, the Everest taught him that, “To conquer our personal Everest, we need to drop all our unnecessary baggage, be it physical or mental or even emotional”.

Vikas used a ‘descent for ascent’ approach to acclimatise. In this approach, mountaineers gain altitude during the day, but descend to catch some sleep. Acclimatising to such high altitudes is crucial as the lack of adequate oxygen can cause dizziness, nausea, headache and even muscle death. As Vikas prepared to scale the riskiest part of the climb - the unstable and continuously melting Khumbhu ice fall - he pondered over his journey so far.

His brother’s diagnosis of a heart condition in his youth was a wakeup call for the rather sedentary Vikas, and that is when he started focusing on his health more. For the first time in his life, he began to appreciate the power of nutrition and experimented with different diets and supplements for their health benefits. His quest for better health also motivated him to take up hiking, marathon running, squash and, eventually, a summit of the Everest.

Back in the Himalayas, after a string of sleepless nights, Vikas and his team ascended to Camp 2 (6,500m) as planned, and then descended to Base Camp for the basic luxuries - hot shower, hot lunch and essential supplements. Back up at Camp 2, the weather played spoiler again as a jet stream - a fast-flowing, narrow air current - moved right over the mountain. Wisdom from the mountains helped Vikas maintain perspective as they were required to descend 15km to Pheriche Valley. He accepted that “strength lies not merely in chasing the big dream, but also in...accepting that things could go wrong.”

At Camp 4 (8,000m), famously known as the death zone, Vikas caught a clear glimpse of the summit – his dream standing rather tall in front of him.

It was the 18th of May 2018 and Vikas finally reached the top. The top of his Everest…the top of Mount Everest!

Watch the video below to see actual moments from Vikas’ climb.


Vikas credits his strength to dedication, exercise and a healthy diet. He credits dietary supplements for helping him sustain himself in the inhuman conditions on Mount Everest. On heights like these where the oxygen supply drops to 1/3rd the levels on the ground, the body requires 3 times the regular blood volume to pump the requisite amount of oxygen. He, thus, doesn’t embark on an expedition without double checking his supplements and uses Livogen as an aid to maintain adequate amounts of iron in his blood.

Livogen is proud to have supported Vikas Dimri on his ambitious quest and salutes his spirit. To read more about the benefits of iron, see here. To read Vikas Dimri’s account of his expedition, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Livogen and not by the Scroll editorial team.