Dev Shah, winner of the 2023 Scripps National Spelling Bee

Kids to Know: Dev Shah, winner of the 2023 Scripps National Spelling Bee

228 competitors. 6 years of preparation. 8 hours of mental and physical training each day. 4 stages of the competition. 0 second chances.

So how did local teen, Dev Shah, really win the 2023 Scripps National Spelling Bee?

He was focused and ready. But even more than that, he went into the competition to enjoy every part of the experience. And on June 1st in National Harbor, Maryland, after Shah correctly spelled “psammophile,” he took home the coveted trophy, earned a $50,000 cash prize, and became the first title holder in Florida since 1999.

Julie Tingley: Congratulations on winning the 2023 Scripps National Spelling Bee! How does it feel to be the champion?

Dev Shah: It feels surreal to be a champion. I remember watching videos of people winning, and just knowing I have my own video is so surreal.

Julie Tingley: And then, what did it feel like being on that big stage that final night in the competition?

Dev Shah: It was the hardest thing I had to do ever, and I think it’ll be the most nerve-wracking experience forever. The thing that made it better was sitting next to the other finalists, and just talking to them. It calmed me down. While spelling the word “rommack,” I could hear my heart thumping. I had no clue how to spell ‘rommack.’ I just guessed it. I literally thought I was dreaming after I spelled it correctly.

Julie Tingley: The competition had 11 million participants worldwide. What was your preparation strategy to stand out among such a large pool of spellers?

Dev Shah: Being myself. The spelling bee is one of the largest educational programs in the country and even the world. There are competitors from Ghana and Germany. The key to being successful in anything is to be yourself.

But to be honest, the spelling bee is different from other competitions. It’s not like I was judged based on someone else’s performance. I was judged based on whether I could spell a random word from the dictionary. It wasn’t about me vs. everyone else. It was me vs. the dictionary.

At the end of the day, someone else getting a word correct doesn’t affect you. That’s a major misconception about the spelling bee.

Julie Tingley: How did you manage your nerves and stay focused during the competition?

Dev Shah: My Mom was a huge factor in that. She constantly made jokes even though she was nervous as well. I had to distract myself the entire time as well. I physically couldn’t study because it’d just throw me into a spiral of self-doubt. I’d walk around the resort, and talk to friends.

I also carried my favorite stuffed animal, Becky. I carry her around because she makes me feel less nervous. I take her with me to high school every day. I’m currently writing this at Yale, where my brother studies, with Becky next to me.

Julie Tingley: Throughout the competition, you spelled some challenging words like ‘schistorrhachis’ and ‘chiromancy’ correctly. Can you tell us about your approach to tackling unfamiliar words?

Dev Shah: The only unfamiliar word was rommack, and it isn’t a coincidence. If you notice the words I got before, like schistorrhachis or poliorcetics, you’d notice that they are Greek or they at least have some origin. Rommack has an unknown origin, and I suck at those. Sometimes, you just have to guess.

The audience thinks that we know the words, but the spelling bee is designed so we don’t know the words. They’re supposed to be words we don’t know. The real preparation is training our sprachgefuhl and intuition. That takes practice just like anything else.

The spelling bee is designed to ask obscure words, and most of them have roots. Schistorrhachis a literal medical term about a congenital spinal defect. The spelling bee doesn’t expect that the speller knows complex anatomical defects. The judges want you to piece it out root by root.

They literally have a judge specifically for roots. That should say a lot. It’s so annoying when people think that the spelling bee is just memorization. It’s so much more.

Julie Tingley: You have won various prizes, including book money for your school and awards from Merriam-Webster and Encyclopedia Britannica. How do you plan to use these prizes, especially the book money for your school?

Dev Shah: I plan to use most of the money for my college fund. I’m also planning on running my own spelling bee, and I’ll use some of it to help fund it. I also got a cool replica of the original Encyclopedia Britannica. I’ll keep that in my library and build a collection.

Julie Tingley: What’s next for you after this remarkable achievement? 

Dev Shah: I’m currently in Palm Harbor University High School. I want to run my own spelling bee, and I currently run my own spelling preparation blog. I write for some magazines like the Teen Magazine and my own local magazine, “The Stroll Bayou Club.” I’m part of my school’s orchestra and medical club.

Julie Tingley: Describe the support and encouragement you received from your family, friends, and teachers throughout your journey to becoming the Scripps National Spelling Bee champion.

Dev Shah: I owe a lot of my success to one teacher, Ms. Micalizzi. In order to do the national spelling bee, the school has to join first. I seriously considered switching schools because no one wanted to do the spelling bee.

I couldn’t find anyone to do it, and no one would respond to me, but Ms. Micalizzi was the only one who responded. She was there every step of the process. She watched my regional bee even though she had her own obligations and busy life. I genuinely want to help people with a similar issue. Not everyone has a Ms. Micalizzi in their school.

It discomforts me knowing that the next national spelling champion probably doesn’t have a school sponsor. The support from all of my friends and family makes me so happy. The day we came back, just seeing everyone at the airport, was much more valuable than all the other interviews.

I’m so grateful to some other teachers like Ms. Tave, Ms. Shank, and Ms. Choi. Teachers don’t get enough recognition for what they do and I want to make sure they do. I would not be here if it weren’t for my teachers and their support.

Julie Tingley: What is your favorite thing to do in Tampa Bay with your family?

Dev Shah: My favorite thing to do in Tampa Bay is Busch Gardens.

Learn more about Dev:

Photo credit: Courtesy of Scripps National Spelling Bee. Originally featured in the November 2023 issue of Tampa Bay Parenting Magazine.


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