THE WORD was “logorrhea.”
Nupur Lala bought some time by asking for it to be used in a sentence. A hint of a smile crossed her bespectacled face. Inside, she was bursting.
Meena Lala watched her 14-year-old daughter intently. There had been one scare during the Scripps National Spelling Bee, but that was a few rounds back, on the word “poimenics,” maybe the only time she had gotten nervous.
But not now. Not on this word.
Odalys Pritchard remembers the moment like it was yesterday. She was on the edge of her seat, watching her Benito Middle School eighth grader on ESPN trying to spell her way into history.
“I remember seeing the smile and the confidence when they gave her the word,” Pritchard says. “I knew she knew it.”
Right before she was given the final word, Nupur caught a glimpse of the event organizers preparing the trophy for the winner.
“It felt like a dream,” she says, and she wasted no time, quickly spelling the winning word.
When Nupur nailed the final word at the 76th annual Scripps National Spelling Bee on June 3, 1999, she jumped as high as she could two times, stopped to tuck her shoulder-length hair behind each ear, and jumped again, her yellow placard designating her as Speller No. 165 flailing about with her arms.
She grabbed the big trophy, raised it up to the sky and smiled the widest of smiles.
“It didn’t feel real,” says Nupur, now age 34. “I remember jumping up and down, and wondering ‘Is there going to be ground beneath me when I land?’”
Twenty years later, she remembers every detail, from the hero’s greeting she received at Tampa International Airport to receiving a key to the city to a slew of television cameras eager to record her every move.
There were banners declaring “Busch Gardens Spells Champ N-U-P-U-R” and local daily newspaper headlines calling her “The goddess of spelling.” The Neighborhood News (see pg. 36) called her “Super Nupur.”
New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner invited her to New York and gave her tickets to see “Phantom” on Broadway. Even Hooters put up a sign congratulating Nupur.
Her parents, Meena and Nupur’s father Parag, had her write the restaurant a thank-you letter.
“In hindsight, thinking back, it was extraordinary,” she says. “I’ll never forget the way that Tampa treated me.”
However, when she felt the most famous, she says, is when her mother was driving her home to Hunter’s Green one day, and the guard at the gate asked if that was the Spelling Bee champ in the back seat.
Meena said yes, and he asked if she could hop out and say hi. This was a time before cell phones, so he didn’t want a picture. He just wanted to congratulate her and share his admiration for her accomplishment.
“That might have been the moment I felt really famous,” Nupur says.
It was just the beginning, though. In 2002, the documentary “Spellbound” was released, to critical acclaim. It followed Nupur and seven other Regional champions through the 1999 Scripps Spelling Bee competition. It earned $6-million and was nominated for an Oscar, giving Nupur a second round of fame.
She never thought she would always be the Spelling Bee champ from Benito Middle School in Tampa.
“I’d say it’s the one accomplishment in my life people are still interested in,” she says. “It has stayed with me more than anything I’ve done.”
There were times, she says, that fact chafed Nupur. To be defined by something you did at age 14, when you barely knew then who you even were, and then to have so much more expected of you as a result, was frustrating at times.
“I’ve had different feelings at different points in my life about all of it,” Nupur says. “Definitely early high school, early college, I felt that there were such massive expectations from winning the Spelling Bee at 14. I was still trying to figure out who I was and where I wanted to fit in in the world. It was very difficult.”
Today, however, Nupur has found her path. As a result, it is easier to embrace being noticed by someone who recognizes her name or face.
Nupur attended high school in Fayetteville, AR, where her family had moved just a few months after the Spelling Bee victory. She graduated from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 2007 with a B.S. degree in Brain Cognitive and Behavioral Science, and worked for three years at the Massachusetts Institute of technology (MIT) in Cambridge doing functional MRI research in cognitive neuroscience
She graduated with a Master’s degree in Cancer Biology from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in 2015. And, after earning her Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock, she is now doing her residency in Neurology at the Rhode Island Hospital in Providence.
She hopes to do a fellowship in neuro-oncology, specifically Glioblastoma multiforme, the brain cancer that killed U.S. Senator John McCain.
Millions of students from all 50 states battle each year to make it to The Scripps National Spelling Bee, scheduled this year for Sunday-Friday, May 26-31, in Washington, D.C.
Nupur remembers the grind. She did her first spelling bee in Kaye Whitehurst’s seventh grade English class, merely to earn extra credit. She hadn’t even heard of the Scripps Spelling Bee, but once she discovered she was good at it, winning it became a goal.
Few remember that she actually made it to our nation’s capital for the first time as a seventh grader, when she was eliminated in the third round on the first day in 1998.
She was happy and proud, but she remembers while she was almost universally praised for her efforts, a classmate taunted her by reminding her that she didn’t win.
“I still remember that feeling. One moment you can be on top, and the next moment, you’re back to being a regular kid,” she says. “I didn’t realize how much it bothered me or how much I internalized that feeling. It fueled me for years.”
Nupur says it was Whitehurst, who had gone to D.C. with her student in 1998, and Pritchard, who is now interim deputy director for Hillsborough County’s Achievement Schools, that helped lift up her spirits.
“Teachers don’t even know the impact they make,” Nupur says. “I hope they read this and know they made a tremendous difference.”
With Meena (who spent many hours reading the practice words to her daughter), Whitehurst and Pritchard in her corner, Nupur was determined to get back to the National Spelling Bee in the eighth grade, and her goal was to make it to the televised portion of the event. She competed in a half dozen regional events to qualify, but says the stiffest competition was actually at Benito.
There were 249 competitors from around the country who survived Regionals and made it to Washington and 144 of them were eliminated on the first day.
But, not Nupur. She had made it to the televised portion on Day 2, and when she did, she says a strange calm came over her.
“I met my goal,” she remembers thinking. “It was still the most surreal moment of my life.”
Nupur’s parents moved to the U.S. from a small town in central India in 1984, where Parag worked as an engineering professor at Syracuse University in upstate New York, where Nupur was born. They moved to Tampa in 1997.
Nupur’s win marked a historic shift in the Spelling Bee. Since her win, 19 spellers of Indian descent have either been champion or co-champion.
Since her win, Nupur says she did not watch the Spelling Bee every year. She confesses to a rebellious period where she didn’t want to be the “goddess of spelling” anymore.
But, when she does watch it, she says she finds herself moved by the reactions of the winners, as well as her own memories.
“It was the culmination of a lot of hard work, by me and my family,” Nupur says. “I did something very few people have, and I will forever be grateful for that moment.”
So will those who knew her, like Pritchard. Nupur’s picture commemorating her win still hangs in the front office at Benito. And, for a long time, there was a large photo portrait of Nupur displayed at the Hillsborough County School Board boardroom auditorium, until the boardroom was renovated in 2017.
“It was always nice seeing that picture,” Pritchard says. “I can’t believe it’s been 20 years. Nupur was a shining star. There’s probably a lot of people who remember her vividly.”