All sorts of history was made at the National Spelling Bee on Thursday night.
Vanya Shivashankar and Gokul Venkatachalam duked it out to a tie and were named co-winners of the annual contest. It marked the second year in a row that co-champions were named and only the fifth time in the history of the bee.
With her share of the victory, Shivashankar, a 13-year-old from Olathe, Kan., joined her sister Kavya as the only siblings to have won the bee. Kavya took the title in 2009.
Shivashankar and Venkatachalam, 14, of Chesterfield, Mo., battled it out for 30 minutes before they were both crowned champs. Back and forth they went, correctly spelling words such as scherenschnitte, pyrrhuloxia, thamakau, caudillismo and a slew of other words mere mortals would never be able to decode.
A roar erupted from the crowd as Venkatachalam correctly spelled nunatak to ensure that the victory would be shared.
“This is a dream come true,” said Shivashankar, who was making her fifth trip to the national bee. “I’ve wanted this for such a long time.” She dedicated her win to her late grandmother. “I hope I make her happy with this,” she said.
“I wasn’t nervous at all,” said Venkatachalam, standing on a stage littered with confetti and facing a sea of cameras. “It was the culmination of all the hard work of the past six years. I’m finally happy to have success.”
His one word to describe his win? “Ridiculous.”
In the packed ballroom, parents, grandparents, siblings and friends of all the spellers sat nervously through each attempt, willing the contestants to nail their words. Media from around the country and the world chronicled each correct — and incorrect — letter. There was a lot on the line. In addition to bragging rights, the winner stood to take home $35,000 in cash prizes. And a trophy big enough to hold the money. (Good news for the winning pair: They won’t have to split the cash or the trophy.)
The victory by Venkatachalam and Shivashankar also marked the eighth straight year in which Indian Americans have won the national bee. Seven of the 10 finalists were kids of South Asian descent.
The domination of the bee by Indian American spellers over the past 15 years has created some backlash, including an ugly outburst of racial insults on social media last year. Paige Kimble, the longtime director of the bee, said that she was approached Thursday and asked whether any “Americans” made it to the finals. “ ‘Yes, they’re all Americans,’ I told them,” Kimble said. “We obviously still have a long way to go.”
There were similarly ugly comments on Twitter on Thursday night, but it was impossible to measure the breadth or depth of the response.
After a grueling three days of competition that began with 283 spellers, just 10 made it to the final round of the bee held at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center at National Harbor, Md. But it didn’t take long for that number to shrink.
Sylvie Lamontagne was the first to exit the final round on Thursday night. She spelled cerastes incorrectly. “That’s not right,” she said as soon as she uttered the last letter and before the bell had even rung. And then the Coloradan exited the stage.
Minutes later, she was followed out of the contest by Siyona Mishra, at 11, the youngest speller in the finals. She misspelled the word hacek. Before the round, she admitted to some nerves about going up against the older spellers.
The plan now, she said, is to take a “long, long, long break from spelling.”
Paul Keaton, 14, of Pikeville, Ky., was out next. He tied for 13th place last year and was making his last visit as a contestant to the bee. Virginia’s Tejas Muthusamy and California’s Snehaa Ganesh Kumar also spelled their words incorrectly before the first hour was completed. Dev Jaiswal and Siddharth Krishnakumar soon followed. Cole Shafer-Ray hung on a little while longer before succumbing. At 9:25 p.m., there were just two contestants left: Venkatachalam, who finished third last year, and Shivashankar.
Each misspelling was greeted with the ding of the judges’ bell and a small gasp from the crowd and then loud and sustained applause. Sweetest, perhaps, was the standing ovation given by the other contestants to their departed cohorts. The bee can sometimes feel less like a competition and more like a giant support group.
Jacques Bailly, now in his 13th year as announcer, was a voice of calm for the nervous spellers.
“I try to make eye contact and elicit a smile before we go into the business of the word,” he said, as he prepared for Thursday night’s finals. “I think of myself as the speller’s ally — even if they don’t always think that.”
Earlier in the day, the 10 finalists battled a slew of taxing words to survive the elimination rounds.
Venkatachalam correctly spelled bordereau (paper describing reinsured risks).
Mishra handled emmetropia (refractive condition of the eye) without trouble. And Lamontagne carefully considered hanswurst (burlesque character in German comedy) before nailing it.
Shafer-Ray’s late father, Neil, a physicist, always wanted him to compete in the bee, he said after learning that he had made it to the final group. His father died in 2012, and Cole has thought of him this week.
“I think he’d be proud of me,” he said.
Mirle and Sandy Shivashankar also had reason to be proud. They’re now the parents of two children who have won spelling’s top prize.
“Vanya showed the flair and the confidence tonight,” said Mirle, who was wearing a shirt with “The Beefather” emblazoned on it. “She was in the zone.”
There were, according to bee organizers, about 11 million spellers who took part in school, local and regional bees that eventually led to Thursday’s final rounds. It would take a math bee champion to calculate those odds, but it’s fair to say that win or lose, the kids who made it to the Maryland Ballroom for last night’s finale are the cream of the spelling crop.