The first hour of the Scripps National Spelling Bee’s Thursday night finale was a bloodbath.
Having worked its way up from the nether regions of ESPN’s myriad networks during a run of all day live broadcasts, the last night of the championship showboated in ESPN’s prime-time slot. Ten children with cartoonishly oversized name tags, standing awkwardly, casually spelled out words words that would make English professors blanch. Drawing from winners of regional bees around the country, this year’s finalists faced off in front of former Scripps champion and official speller Dr. Jaques Bailly, competing for the grand prize of $40,000, a trophy, an Encyclopedia Britannica set, a trip to New York, and, for all entrants, a Kindle and copy of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, which also functions as the Bee’s bible.
First to fall was 11-year-old Jashun Paluru of Indianapolis. Next, No. 13, Cooper Komatsu of Culver City, California, stumbled on “illicium” while his grandfather, a veteran of the event from 50 years prior, looked on with pride. Then seventh-grader Skreeniketh Vogoti fumbled “palagonite,” followed quickly by the brow-furrowing, obviously nervous 14-year-old Mitchell Robson on “Wehrmacht,” and seventh-grader Rutvik Gandhasri with “Betony.”
And then there were five.
The tension began to ratchet up. Sylvie Lamontagne, a demure 12-year-old from Lakewood, Colorado, looked frazzled as she successfully spelled “Venetic.” Her anxiety was understandable—last year, she was the first finalist to be eliminated, and her father and coach, Scott Isaacs, won the Bee himself in 1989. Next New York’s Jairam Hathwar confidently delivered “amanitin,” Texan Smrithi Upadhyayula was unfazed by “chalazion,”and her fellow Lone Star Stater, 11-year-old Nihar Janga, handled “hypozeuxis” with aplomb.
All the kids left onstage were going to wind up in the money, with $30,000 going to second place, $20,000 to third, $10,000 to fourth, and $5,000 for fifth. Should it end in a tie—it has four times, most recently in 2015—both winners would walk away with the grand prize of $40,000 each.
Can you spell “rhinolophid”? Don’t feel bad if you can’t—neither can Microsoft Word, nor Apple’s Autocorrect. But Sacramento, California, eighth-grader Snehaa Ganesh Kumar can, although from the look of amazement on her face as she left the microphone, she may not have known she could. Alas, Smrithi Upadhyayula wasn’t so lucky, killing her chances at winning by misspelling “theriaca,” a type of antidote for poison.
Four to go.
This is serious business, with entrants training and competing year-round, a pageant circuit for beautiful minds. For the winners, the future looks bright. Bee alumni count among them doctors, lawyers, rocket scientists, Pulitzer Prize winners, millionaire entrepreneurs, and even a champion professional poker player.
Eleven-year-old Janga, casually assuming the position before the mic, delivered “gisant” with an aplomb that would make your neighbor’s honor roll student bumper sticker turn black and curl up on itself in shame. “Poitrel” means centerpiece for a table, and Kumar must have one at home, so casually did she spell it. Lamontagne was next, her hair more askew, intensely ghost writing “kakiemon” on her palm before successfully saying the letters and returning to the bench and high fives from her fellow contestants.
Round 12 closed with perfect performances from each, and the pressure was palpable as 13 began.
Studies have shown that increased reliance on modern technology such as Autocorrect has frayed the edges of our spelling capabilities, but watching these kids, you’d never know it.
“Aplustre.” “Ekka.” Easy.
“Collyridian” almost tripped up Hathwar, but he recovered, his dream of becoming the second champion in his family—his brother Sririam was one of the co-winners in 2014—still attainable. He returned to the bench, fidgeting with the other kids.
“Chaoborine.” Lamontagne took a deep breath, asking a series of questions to help isolate the word’s origin. Voice breaking, she missed the “i,” knowing it was over before the bell dinged.
Pronouncer Bailly’s definitions often doubled as dry jokes, a play more to the audience than the contestants. Hathwar smiled with confidence instead of humor as he aced “launeddas,” followed by Janga and “berceuse.”
The championship round.
Snehaa Ganesh Kumar’s voice was quieter this round, her long black hair framing a suddenly disappointed face as she trailed off while misspelling “usucapion.”
Two to go.
“Geländesprung” is a type of ski jump, and Hathwar floated over the top of it. Janga followed suit with “schepen.”
“Achalasia.” “Cypraeiform.” “Ripieno.” “Melilot.” “Lerot.” “Giallolino.” “Harmattan.”
“Appetitost.” Eleven-year-old Janga immediately smiled slightly, and asked, “Is this a cheese?” It is, and he ate it up.
Six rounds into the 25 championship rounds, and it was like watching tennis champions volley at warmup. Nonplussed, they returned whatever was served, Janga nonchalantly asking questions like “Is this the Breton bagpipe (biniou)?” or “Is this an Irish prime minister (Taoiseach)?” immediately upon hearing his next word, a precociousness that drew the slightest of grins from Bailly. Both boys had become more relaxed, looser, settling into the rhythm and answering as though hardwired into Google, analog previews of the coming Singularity.
Suddenly it was nearly over. Hathwar missed the “h” on “drahthaar,” a mistake he caught immediately upon uttering it. Janga stepped up, having to get the next two right to win. He delivered calmly “rafraîchissor,” and Hathwar stood and clapped. For the first time, Janga looked a little nervous as they paused for a computer issue. At last it came, “ayacahuite.” He wasn’t playing around this time, asking for the origin, definition, alternate pronunciations, and usage. Slowly, he began and, to a moan from the audience, missed the third “a.”
And they were both back in play.
Smiling, Hathwar was up, hitting a homer. Janga did the same, ringing out round 14 of 25. If both could persevere for 11 more rounds, they would become co-champions, an outcome it was impossible not to hope for.
The two rattled through a mind-melting litany of arcane words until Hathwar again slipped, the audience rising with a sympathetic standing ovation. Yet young Janga again failed to deliver a killing blow, and it reset. My wife mused that the kind-seeming 11-year-old was missing them on purpose, a gracious gesture to a worthy opponent.
Round 24, and if they both got their words, they would be co-champions. The two boys looked at each other, smiling, and nodded in apparent agreement.
Hathwar was up first. “F-e-l-d-e-n-k-r-a-i-s,” he said, ending with a smile.
Next was Janga, smiling even as he got to the mic. “G-e-s-e-l-l-s-c-h-a-f-t.” He said each letter quickly, confidently. He knew he had it. And just like that, for a second year in a row, a shared trophy. History was made.
“It was just insane, I don’t even know how to put it in words,” Hathwar said, when asked how he felt. Janga smiled, credited his mom, and said, “I’m only in fifth grade, I don’t know what to say.”
Somehow, that seems unlikely.