Local spelling star shined from the start, teachers say

UPDATE: As of 11:30 a.m., Gokul Venkatachalam remains among the top 32 as he correctly spelled his previous word.

WASHINGTON, D.C. - For the third year in a row, a 13-year-old from Chesterfield will appear on national television in what some describe as the Super Bowl of spelling bees.

And while the judges with the Scripps National Spelling Bee have had Gokul Venkatachalam on their radar since 2012, educators in the Parkway School District realized they had something special on their hands for quite a while.

"He was pretty special," said Aaron Wills, the principal at Claymont Elementary, where Gokul attended kindergarten through fifth grade.

Gokul just completed the seventh grade at Parkway West Middle School.

"I remember his first regional spelling bee," Wills said. "He was competing as a little third grader against really tall seventh and eighth graders. And he could barely reach the microphone on his tippy toes and he was just spelling word after word after word while these big goliaths are missing the words and falling by the wayside. Gokul just kept going and going."

And Gokul keeps going and going this week at the Scripps National Bee.

On Wednesday, Gokul breezed through the preliminary rounds, spelling "perestroika" and "nouveau" with an ease and confidence not displayed by the majority of the other 281 competitors.

At the end of the day, Gokul's name was announced as one of the 46 semifinalists.

Thursday, Gokul will compete in the semifinals at 9 a.m. CST on ESPN2. If he advances, he will be in a field of about 12 in final round on ESPN at 7 pm CST.

"This kid really is special, not just as a speller, but just all around," Wills said. "Gokul's well-rounded. He's an outstanding reader, writer, he's just top of his class in every subject. Whether it's math, science, it doesn't matter, he's a champion all around. But spelling certainly is his expertise."

Much of a speller's score at the bee is determined by individual spelling and vocabulary tests, done by computer, at the bee, before the spellers ever take the stage.

Of the total 36 points needed to reach the semifinals, 30 come from the tests before the spelling on stage. A word spelled correctly on stage accounts for only 3 points.

"Gokul is in the semifinals," announced Gokul's proud father, via text, at 4:30 pm on Wednesday.

Gokul finished 19th overall last year and 10th in 2012.

"It just goes to show how much character he has," said Jason Kozdrun, the Assistant Principal at Gokul's current school, Parkway West Middle School. "He works endlessly on his spelling and that rolls over into his class work and other students see that. They aspire to excellence because of him."

Gokul will have at least another year to compete in the Scripps National Bee after today.

And that's when the next chapter will begin.

"Gokul has a little brother, you know," Wills said. "He's coming. He's in third grade. And he's good, too."


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