Three past winners of the Scripps National Spelling Bee say losing was the secret to their success.
Early defeats spurred an inner competitive streak that they used to eventually seize the title, said champions from 1985, 1999 and 2010. The 2017 national spelling bee winner will be crowned on Thursday.
"Those were tough losses but they also made me dig deeper and work harder," said Balu Natarajan, 45, who flamed out on the national stage in 1983 and 1984. He won the next year at age 13 and is now a sports medicine doctor in Chicago.
Nupur Lala, 32, still remembers the word that tripped her up in 1998: commination, which ironically means the act of threatening divine vengeance. She took the title in 1999 at 14.
"It was one of the really healthy moments in my life. Any hubris that I had was eliminated at that point," said Lala, headed for a 2018 medical school degree with a focus in neurology after conducting research at University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
Lesson about challenges
For 2010 winner Anamika Veeramani, losing in front of a worldwide audience on live television in 2009 was a seminal lesson in handling life's challenges.
"In the spelling bee, you really learn how to deal with failure. And dealing with those things gracefully is really important to living a good life," said Veeramani, 21.
She graduated last week with a biology degree after just three years at Yale University and is applying to medical school. She envisions treating patients as well as launching a broadcast career covering medical stories.
Defeat has fanned the competitive fires within, all three past winners said in separate interviews.
"The competition is not with other spellers but with yourself," Lala told Reuters. "I don't think that besting other people is quite as motivating for me."
Natarajan, who is chief medical officer at Seasons Hospice & Palliative Care, the nation's largest privately owned hospice provider, agreed he has been his own fiercest rival.
"Some people love to win. Some people want to keep pushing to be their best. I am the latter," he said.
Natarajan won the title for correctly spelling milieu, Lala for logorrhea and Veeramani for stromuhr, after their opponents had stumbled.
And how do the world's best spellers handle errors in emails, classroom lessons or even romantic love letters? Do they point out corrections or suffer in silence?
"I don't hesitate," Natarajan said. "It drives me crazy."
But Lala and Veeramani hold their tongues.
"I don't want to be obnoxious. Nobody wants to be that kid," Veeramani said.
This week, 291 whizzes ages 6 to 15 will descend on a resort in the Washington area to compete in the 90th Scripps National Spelling Bee.
They have made the cut from more than 11 million contenders who faced off in spelling bees in all 50 U.S. states, U.S. territories from Puerto Rico to Guam, and several nations from Jamaica to Japan.
The victor on Thursday takes home a $40,000 cash prize. But second place also has its rewards: a $30,000 prize.
Natarajan, a married father of boys 8 and 11, said his elder child just missed competing in the national bee this year, coming in second in a countywide spelling competition. If losing really is the key to winning, that may be great news.