After an epic duel of word masters, an 11-year-old Texan and a 13-year-old New Yorker tied Thursday night in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, the third year in a row two victors shared the championship trophy.
Crowd favorite Nihar Saireddy Janga, a fifth-grader who charmed the audience and many on social media with his slight voice and knowledge of obscure words, and Jairam Hathwar, whose brother Sriram Hathwar was a co-winner in 2014, were declared this year’s champions.
The two Indian-American boys squared off against each other for more than 20 rounds at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center at National Harbor, Md — and nearly didn’t deadlock. Nihar had the opportunity to win twice after his older competitor stumbled on two turns. But much like what can happen in a tennis match, Nihar subsquently faltered himself, making the tie seem like destiny.
The Bee was scheduled from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. on ESPN but lasted about an hour longer, thanks to new rules that allowed for 25 rounds among the final three contestants. But it was a group of three for only one round: The other competitor, Snehaa Ganesh Kumar, 13, of California, fell out early, leaving Nihar and Jairam.
Nihar, who attends River Ridge Elementary School in Austin and lists “Batman: Arkham City” as his favorite video game, was competing in his first Bee. Clad in Velcro-strap sneakers, he awed fans by displaying serious knowledge of some of his words. Asked to spell “appetitost,” he immediately asked, “Is this a cheese?” It is.
Challenged with the word “taoiseach,” he instantly knew its meaning. “Is this an Irish prime minister?” he asked.
"It is," said the Bee’s longtime pronouncer, Jacques Bailly, himself a previous Bee winner. Nihar reeled off the correct letters.
When they reached the final round where one could have beaten the other, neither boy showed a shred of weakness. Jairam nailed “Feldenkrais,” then Nihar slammed it home with “gesellschaft.”
Once the two finalists realized they had tied, they embraced and celebrated. Confetti poured down onto the stage as their jubiliant families joined them, including Jairam’s grandmother from Bangalore, who also made the trip from India two years ago when Sriram Hathwar won the Bee.
Indian American children have long dominated the Bee, winning for the eighth year in a row. It was also the third consecutive year that produced co-winners instead of a single champion, despite new rules that were designed to discourage ties by adding extra rounds and increasing the difficulty of the words.
The Bee’s director, Paige Kimble, said she knew a deadlock was still possible. The crowd actually seemed relieved that the boys, who’d been applauding and encouraging one another all evening, survived the spelloff. Each will receive a $40,000 prize.
During the celebration, Nihar credited his mother for his spelling prowess and said: “I’m just speechless. I can’t say anything. I’m only in fifth grade.”
Jairam said if his brother had not participated, he would not have become a champion speller. He and Sriram are the second pair of siblings to win the Bee. Last year Vanya Shivashankar became a co-champion; her sister Kavya won in 2010.
The Bee, which began this week with 284 contestants from around the world, is inherently nerve-racking, but the contest organizers do all they can to pump up the pressure. Finalists sit on an elevated, neon-lit stage facing ESPN cameras swooping overhead in two directions and an ESPN GameDay-style host set in the back.
Two movie-size screens flank the stage, one showing photos of each student, the other showing live footage of them spelling their words and their parents reacting to the result. Dozens of credentialed reporters from around the world sit along five long rows of tables right behind a set of four judges.
This is not, in other words, for children with hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia — fear of words.
By Thursday night there just 10 competitors left.
They spelled words that were in English, technically. But they were often obscure and multi-syllabic: Myoclonus. Pneumatomachy. Hirundine. Comitatus.
Less than an hour into Thursday night’s championship, Cooper Komatsu, 13, of California, who with a teammate won the 2016 North American School Scrabble Championship, was taken out. The killer word: illicium. Fans loved Cooper, who placed 11th last year. He barely got his first word right Thursday evening — myoclonus — pausing at length between letters.
After he was ousted, ESPN’s sideline reporter — yes, just like those in sports — interviewed him on the couch next to the stage, where all the vanquished spellers are offered a box of tissues and a plate of cookies.
“When I got my first word right, I didn’t know it,” he said. “I was really happy. The second word I just didn’t know. I tried my best. I didn’t get it, but I am glad to be here.”