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Have kids outsmarted the National Spelling Bee?

When Vanya Shivashankar, 13, spelled “scherenschnitte” correctly and Gokul Venkatachalam, 14, nailed “nunatak,” it meant the duo would share the title of 2015 Scripps Spelling Bee champion. (Video: Reuters)

Gokul Venkatachalam was about to recite the seven most important letters of his (admittedly short) life thus far. He and fellow speller Vanya Shivashankar had just correctly spelled 22 of the Scripps National Spelling Bee’s 25 final-round words Thursday night. If he got the next one right, there wouldn’t be enough words for them to keep facing off against one another, and they would be co-champions of the bee. If he got it wrong, well, he wasn’t planning on getting it wrong.

“Spell nunatak.”

The eighth grader didn’t need a definition (though the rest of us mere mortals can find one here). He didn’t even need five seconds to spell the word.

“N-u-n-a-t-a-k. Nunatak.”

Venkatachalam grinned sheepishly as the crowd erupted. Minutes later, he and Shivashankar were hoisting a massive, gleaming trophy into the air, surrounded by whooping fans and a mess of confetti. America had just found its two top spellers — again.

[Indian Americans dominate the National Spelling Bee. Why should they take abuse on social media for it?]

After 52 years of lone champions, this year’s bee was the second in a row to have two winners. It’s only the fifth time that two victors have been declared, and the first time in bee history there have been co-champions two years running.

Before this bee began, executive director and 1981 champion Paige Kimble predicted it would be another half century years before the competition saw another tie. Now she thinks differently, she told the Associated Press.

“I think it’s time to consider that the bee may be entering a new era where the level of competition is so intense that we need to entertain this as a possibility every year,” Kimble said.

Just as happened in last year’s contest, the 2015 bee organizers ran out of “championship” words before the final two competitors ran out of steam. America’s top spellers, it would appear, have gotten the best of America’s biggest spelling bee.

So how did they do it? By being there before.

Shivashankar, a 13-year-old from Olathe, Kan., and Venkatachalam, a 14-year-old from Chesterfield, Mo., were both veteran spellers. This was Shivashankar’s fifth trip to the Bee and Venkatachalam’s fourth. Shivashankar has an older sister who won the contest in 2009, and Venkatachalam had already been to the finals, in last year’s competition, where he placed third.

Much the same is true for last year’s co-winners. Sriram Hathwar of Painted Post, NY, won on his sixth trip to the bee. And even though Fort Worth, Texas teen Ansun Sujoe called himself a “rookie,” this was his second time competing. Indeed, it’s been more than a decade since a speller won in his or her first appearance. And getting to the bee itself is no easy feat — kids must win a local competition in order to make it to nationals.

Kids competing in the 2014 Scripps National Spelling Bee tell The Washington Post why spelling is important to them. (Video: Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

Kimble touched on this explanation while speaking to the Post’s Joe Heim about why Indian Americans are so successful at Scripps (they have won all but four of the last 15 years).

“What might be happening [with Indian American contestants] is that there might be perseverance for the National Spelling Bee goal over a longer period of time,” Kimble said.

In other words, by returning to the bee over and over, spellers like Shivashankar and Venkatachalam get better and better. In fact, they may have gotten a little too good.

In the final minutes of the competition, when she and Venkatachalam were the only spellers remaining, Shivashankar was given the word bouquetiere.

After inquiring about the definition (garnished with vegetables) and language of origin (French), the 13-year-old spelled the word into her hand then recited it out loud: “B-o-u-q-u-e-t-i-e-r-e. Bouquetiere.” She grinned.

“If they do want only one [champion], the words are going to have to get tougher than that one was for Vanya,” the announcer scoffed.

The words did get tougher (Pyrrhuloxia? Thamakau? Gesundheit!) But up against Shivashankar and Venkatachalam, they weren’t quite tough enough.