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Rising ninth grader Akhil Giddaluri attends Scripps National Spelling Bee

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Akhil Giddaluri '26 spells a word at the Scripps National Spelling Bee

Sym-bol-o-pho-bi-a.

According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, this word is defined as "fear that one's acts or speech may contain symbolic meanings."

On May 31 as Akhil Giddaluri attempted to reach the fourth round of the Scripps National Spelling Bee in National Harbor, Maryland, the rising ninth-grader wasn't so concerned about the meaning of "symbolophobia" as simply spelling it correctly in the competition's allotted time of two-and-a-half minutes. "My goal has always been to get to the finals and to get on the big stage in front of people," said the 13-year-old. "This year was my last chance."

Not only did Giddaluri wind up spelling "symbolophobia" correctly, he spelled three words right in the fourth round before misspelling “roquette”, which is a kind of lettuce. "I put a 'c' before the 'q,''' he said. "To prepare for the competition, I practiced two hours a day. I probably should have done more. Some of the kids who finished ahead of me were studying four or five hours a day."

Of the 234 spellers who arrived at National Harbor on Memorial Day weekend, Giddaluri finished 49th overall, a remarkable achievement for someone who was making his first trip to the national competition. "Akhil has been working on this since he was in elementary school," said Weesie Cook, his 6th grade English teacher at McCallie. "He has a really sharp mind and a really good memory. I have always hoped he would get to the National Bee. I am so happy for him." 

Ms. Cook believes a mistake in the opening round of the regional competition when Giddaluri was in the sixth grade motivated him to achieve his dream of reaching the big stage. "Akhil was sent home in the first round," she recalled. "He spelled the word too quickly and accidentally added a letter. He was just devastated. But he put that defeat behind him and kept going." Giddaluri still remembers that word: luggage. "I spelled it correctly, then, for some reason, I added an extra ‘s,'" he recalled. "Missing that word motivated me more than anything to never let that happen again."

Akhil’s mother Lakshmi saw his passion and talent for spelling words from an early age. "He showed an interest in reading in kindergarten," she said. "Any new word he'd see, he would make a sentence with that word. By third grade he was spelling everything. He has just always been good at it." 

Akhil Giddaluri '26 with pronouncer Dr. Jacques Bailly  at the Scripps National Spelling Bee

Akhil poses with Dr. Jacques Bailly who has been the pronouncer for the Scripps National Spelling Bee since 2003.

Akhil isn't just good at spelling. He plays a mean game of Minecraft, has taken up tennis, and has long displayed mad musical skills with the violin. As for his classroom work, he took honors pre-calculus as an eighth-grader. He's taking coding courses this summer. He does, however, admit to coming in second to his twin brother Nikhil in one area. "He has a higher ranking than me in chess," he said. "But I'm getting better."

When Akhil's long spelling bee run came to an end, the family headed to Washington D.C. to check out the Lincoln Memorial, several museums, and a celebratory dinner at a Thai restaurant. For permanent memories he kept his speller card, which showed his first name, participant number, and sponsor information, and he kept photos of his time on stage and a brief video of the experience. 

"This is such a big accomplishment," said his mom. "Akhil's worked so hard for this. Seeing him on that stage in front of a huge crowd, we couldn't have been more proud of him." All of McCallie joins her in feeling pride in his hard work and success.