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OXON HILL, Md. (AP) — Akash Vukoti no longer stands out at the Scripps National Spelling Bee for his age, not with a record 23 spellers competing this year who are 9 or younger.
But he's the only member of the single-digit club to be making his third appearance at the bee, where onstage spelling started Tuesday and runs through Thursday. He's also the only one who's coming off a stint on "Dancing with the Stars: Juniors."
Akash, who made his bee debut three years ago at age 6, is now a publicity-savvy entertainer behind his cherubic grin and big, brown eyes. While many spellers are obsessed with last-minute studying, Akash has other responsibilities, including creating content for his YouTube channel, which has more than 32,000 subscribers.
"This year has been super busy for me," Akash said. "I had rather limited time to study."
Akash greeted a familiar reporter with a hug and a warm smile, but there is some calculation to his time at the bee. His parents handed out business cards promoting his website, email and social media channels. As he frolicked in a bin full of foam blocks with letters printed on them, his dad shot video for YouTube. Another speller stood to the side, hoping to get Akash to sign her "Beekeeper," a book with all the spellers' names, photos and bios that many participants fill with signatures throughout the week. But she gave up as Akash continued playing to the camera.
Still, Akash, who's from San Angelo, Texas, is not just here to build his brand. He qualified for the competition on merit, winning his regional bee over competitors including his 11-year-old sister, Amrita, who's competing at nationals as a wild-card entrant.
"Spelling is my passion," Akash said. "That's where it all started for me."
Akash made multiple appearances on "Little Big Shots," a show about precocious kids hosted by Steve Harvey, and the spinoff "Little Big Shots UK" before he was tapped for "Dancing with the Stars: Juniors."
The wild cards have made elementary school-age spellers less of a novelty. Seventeen of this year's 23 spellers age 9 or younger got in through the wild-card program. Since 2003, no more than six spellers age 9 or under have ever qualified for the bee in a given year, according to Scripps.
Akash is also unique for his staying power. Of the four spellers who've made the bee at age 6, he's the only one to make a return appearance.
His dad, Krishna Vukoti, has a theory about that. Gifted younger kids can make it to nationals, Krishna said, but they have to get luckier than most because there are too many words they just haven't run across. Akash has been tripped up by words such as "butchery."
"The brain is expanding," Krishna said. "It can't accept all the vocabulary."
Krishna said he thinks his son — who labored through his opening-round word, "ranunculus" — will have a chance at a high finish next year, "if he's not distracted toward Hollywood."
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