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12-year-old competes in Spelling Bee 33 years after his father was crowned champion

12-year-old competes in Spelling Bee 33 years after his father was crowned champion
Posted at 5:43 AM, May 31, 2018

They say the a-p-p-l-e doesn't fall far from the t-r-e-e. Just consider Atman Balakrishnan, 12, of Hinsdale, Illinois.

Atman is one of 516 kids who competed this week in the 2018 Scripps National Spelling Bee.

His biggest fan won the 1985 National Spelling Bee, becoming its first Indian-American champion. He also happens to be Atman's father.

"When he was just 4 years old, Atman found out I won," Balu Natarajan told CNN. "And ever since he has been wanting to do it."

Now Atman's parents -- including mom Meenakshi Balakrishnan -- and his grandparents are all in National Harbor, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C., to cheer him on as he spells out obscure words much in the way his dad did 33 years ago

The former national champion says this time around is more stressful.

"As a parent it's a completely different feeling," said Natarajan, 46. "It was a lot easier then. Now I am actually nervous."

Natarajan, a doctor in Chicago, attributes his nerves to the fact that the spelling competition is nothing like it was when he was 13.

"Thirty-three years ago the word bank was a lot smaller. We had to learn anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 words. Now the kids need to know around 30,000 to 80,000 words to win," he said.

Technology also plays a huge role in spelling bees today.

Back then, Natarajan studied by looking up words in an actual dictionary. Atman learns his words by looking them up online.

The boy has been determined to do well.

"My father and my hard work are my biggest motivation," Atman said. "I've done a lot of hard work and I would love to see it pay off."

Atman has received extra attention this week, thanks to his dad's title. But he says most of the feedback he has received has been supportive, which encourages him even more.

Natarajan told CNN that he's just excited to see his son make it this far. He also praised Atman's coach, who has encouraged him not to worry too much about losing -- as there is always next year.

"We are just proud to be here for Atman. My parents are also here to watch this unfold and this is just so special to us -- to be able to see and understand what they went through 33 years ago," Natarajan said.

Atman competed Wednesday morning -- spelling "vitascope" correctly. But his championship dreams were dashed that evening when he learned he would not be one of the 41 kids competing in the finals Thursday.

Natarajan texted CNN the sad news. "His Scripps journey is done for 2018. On to the next," he said.

This year's Scripps National Spelling Bee features the largest number of competitors in its history. Contestants come from all 50 states and a handful of other countries and range in ages from 8 to 15 years old.

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