Back and forth they went, Rohan Rajeev and Ananya Vinay.
Some of the words they spelled: Heiligenschein. Durchkomponiert. Sceloporus.
One, or both of them, would be the new champion of the Scripps National Spelling Bee at Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in Maryland. But late into the night Thursday, it still wasn’t clear who would win yet. By 11:30, though, confetti rained down and a champion emerged. Ananya had won on “marocain,” a fabric.
Ananya, a 12-year old Californian, cheers for the Golden State Warriors. She is a big reader. Her bio noted that in her free time, she imagines stories. The one she was writing for herself Thursday sure was pretty rad. “I’m so happy right now,” she said after she won.
The two were among the brightest and best young spellers gathered for Thursday’s finals, a marathon event that stretched late into the evening. Among the other words young participants were asked to conquer: pterygoideus, mollienisia, cinerarium and hesychast. Could you spell hesychast? I mean, truly, could you hang with these kids?
It’s okay to answer honestly: Nope. N-o-p-e.
This was the 90th National Spelling Bee, an event celebrated on social media, shown on ESPN, and generally, something that serves as a true delight for even the most casual of word nerds.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Greg Howard, father of Erin, who spoke after his daughter learned that she would be appearing on ESPN later in the night. But she went out on “klydonograph,” a device that records a surge in electrical voltage on a sulphur-dusted photographic film, according to Wikipedia — in case you didn’t know.
“This is her second Bee,” Howard said earlier. “She has worked incredibly hard, but it’s very easy to see that every kid up there has worked incredibly hard. So, I’m just thrilled that the roulette wheel spun in her favor. It’s been great.”
On Thursday morning, 40 finalists sat onstage in a ballroom, wearing T-shirts, jeans and their game faces. As they approached the mic, some nervously greeted Jaques Bailly, the steady and calming voice of the Bee. Some spelled out words with their hands. Some appeared unsure, only to get there in the end.
Later, on prime-time television, at least one of these kids onstage would be named champion. But first the group had to be whittled down. In the morning and early afternoon, they were tested by words such as “perinephric.”
“Words fail, ironically,” Howard said, when asked what it felt like to watch his daughter onstage. “There’s nothing like it.”
Of more than 250 participants, 40 qualified for Thursday’s finals, including Tejas Muthusamy, 14, an eighth-grader from Glen Allen, Va., in his fourth national Bee.
By midday, the group had been narrowed to 15 contestants who would appear on ESPN. Erin was among them. Also in the group: Alice Liu, a smiley 10-year-old Missouri girl. And there was Alex Iyer, a 14-year-old Texan, who sure looked like he was having a ton of fun up there, at least during the parts that weren’t super tough.
“I feel ecstatic,” Alex said, after making the ESPN cut. “I just started crying after, because I was so nervous. And, like, all of my energy, I was finally able to relax. I was just so happy. It felt surreal, because I finally achieved a goal. I didn’t really think I’d get it. I was so happy.”
Tejas made the cut, too. He carried a lucky rock in his pocket, and said it worked “really well” Thursday. He didn’t stumble until late into the night.
To the victor, or victors, goes a $40,000 cash prize from Scripps, a big trophy and other awards, including a $2,500 U.S. savings bond from Merriam-Webster (boring), and trips to New York and California for televised appearances (significantly less boring).
The past three Bees have ended in a tie, including the 2016 edition, a competition held after officials changed the rules in an attempt to discourage such results. Nihar Janga and Jairam Hathwar shared last year’s title, winning with “Gesellschaft” and “Feldenkrais.” They were in the audience Thursday night.
The small but mighty Edith Fuller, perhaps the year’s biggest little spellebrity, was not in the finals. She had been eliminated during prelims. Edith, the event’s youngest-ever contestant, was 5 when she qualified.
The home-schooled 6-year-old from Oklahoma stood tall Wednesday as she nailed “tapas,” but she did not advance to the next round.
Maggie Sheridan, a 13-year-old finalist from Ohio, is a triplet. One of her siblings was in the audience Thursday, as well as her parents.
“Today, I’m nervous,” said her father, Mark Sheridan, 57. “Last two days, I wasn’t that bad. But today, especially as we walked up here, it was, like, oh my gosh, I’m nervous for Maggie. It was just so much, you know? The top 40 out of all these kids. It’s, uh — I don’t know. We’ll get through it.”
“Walking into the Spelling Bee, I was super happy that I made it, and then I set a goal to make it to the finals,” said Maggie. “And now here I am. So now, I’m just hoping to go as far as I can.”
There was a party at the Sheridan house on Wednesday night, said Mark, an engineer who spent the evening calling and texting and emailing.
“We were doing that all day long, but especially after she got into the finals,” he said. “I got up at 6 this morning just to read all the emails from everybody that came in. It’s just fantastic.”
Brendan Pawlicki, 10, of Michigan, was the first to go down Thursday morning after being handed “desman.” “Uh, what is it?” Brendan said, after learning his word. He was later followed offstage by Paul Hamrick, a home-schooled 13-year-old from California, who was bummed to learn that “occiput” has that tricky “u” in there.
Maggie’s first word was “whirlicote,” something she definitely did not appear to know, in that she struggled to pronounce it. Ur-la-coat? Wore-le-coat? What is even happening with this word, whirlicote? Poor Maggie looked so hopeless up there onstage as she spit out a spelling — which seemed like any spelling, whatever, here are some letters, maybe? — as the time ticked away.
“WHAT?!” Maggie exclaimed, throwing her hands to her head in shock, after learning that she had spelled it correctly and would continue in the Bee.
The joy didn’t last. In the next round, Maggie was asked to spell “saccharomycete.”