This time, they out-spelled the spelling bee. For the first time since 1962, two students were declared co-champions of the Scripps National Spelling Bee after they exhausted the official word list before either could prevail.
At the end of a grueling 21-round final, the golden trophy was hoisted by 14-year-old Sriram Hathwar, competing in his fifth national bee, and 13-year-old Ansun Sujoe, making his second trip to the nation’s biggest spell-off.
“The competition was against the dictionary, not each other,” said a weary-but-wired Sriram, of Painted Post, N.Y., who had made the finals in two previous national bees and had declared his determination to win this one. He had to beat his brother in a regional bee to advance to annual championship at Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in Prince George’s County.
“First, I want to rest,” said Ansun, a guitar, piano and bassoon player from Fort Worth.
The teens were the last two standing after a three-day competition that started with 281 spellers and a final round, broadcast live on ESPN, that began with just 12. Their shared victory came only after both stumbled in the evening’s 16th round. Sriram missed on “corpsbruder,” but he got a reprieve when Ansun flubbed his word, “antigropelos,” and the bee went into extra innings.
“If he missed his word, I knew I would come back,” Sriram said. “But I didn’t want him to miss it. He’s a really good speller.”
In the late 1990s, after some marathon spell-offs, the bee implemented rules that gave both spellers the win if they exhausted a special 25-word championship list that is brought out when the field is down to the final two.
“It’s a scenario we’ve been contemplating for 15 years but never had to implement before now,” said Paige Kimble, the bee’s executive director.
After several more rounds of perfect spelling, pronouncer Jacques Bailly said, “Ansun, if you spell this next word correctly, we will declare you and Sriram co-champions.”
The word was “feuilleton,” part of a European newspaper.
Nearly out of time — having asked for definition, part of speech and multiple repetitions — Ansun said, “Whatever.”
And then he nailed it. F-E-U-I-L-L-E-T-O-N.
Five of the finalists fell early. One was Tajaun Gibbison, an owlish 13-year-old from Jamaica who offered a winning, “Thank you, sir,” after receiving each word. He missed on “chartula.” Another was Kate Miller, 14, of Abilene, Tex., who got a big response every time she air-typed her words as she spelled them.
As the finalists walked off, each got a standing ovation from the other spellers.
The darling of the bee was 15-year-old Jacob Williamson of Cape Coral, Fla. He won the crowd over with the unbridled, arm-pumping screams of joy every time he nailed a word. When he made the final round, he pounded the stage floor.
His father, Daniel Williamson, a letter carrier, said Jacob tends to give full vent to his happiness. The home-schooled math whiz, who learned to read at 4, will raise a ruckus, for example, when he scores a good coin on eBay for his collection.
“He’s a free-range chicken, my friend,” said Williamson, looking over at his son. “People love him for his honesty and his joy of life.”
But Jacob, who made it through “rhadamanthine” and “carcharodont,” fell to “kabarogoya.”
“I know it. I know it,” he shouted with joy.But he didn’t. “What!?” he cried in disbelief when the bell ended his run. The crowd roared, “Noooo!” and rose to its feet.
Sriram’s mother, Roopa Hathwar, who is a doctor like his father, said her son studied more” after coming up just short of the trophy last year. It was his third time making the final round.
“He really increased his efforts,” she said. “He studied the dictionary more often and went over the words over and over.”
Thursday marked the most intense day of competition since spellers began gathering over the weekend. The welcome picnic, the autograph collecting and the messing with the free tablet they each got from Microsoft gave way to the contest’s hardest words and the unforgiving rhythm of live television. As the commercial breaks grew more frequent in prime time, each elicited a subtle ambient groan from the assembled.
“Sure, to a certain degree they want the competition to go on, and it s kind of agonizing to wait. But they do want their friends to see them on TV,” said Blake Gidden, a former national winner who was doing duty as a judge Thursday. Sitting next to the old hotel desk bell, he was the wielder of the dreaded ding.