After a heart-stopping epic duel of word masters, an 11-year-old Texan and a 13-year-old New Yorker tied for the championship trophy Thursday night in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, the third time in a row the contest deadlocked between two victors.
Crowd favorite Nihar Saireddy Janga, a fifth-grader who charmed the fans with his slight voice and knowledge of obscure words, and Jairam Hathwar, whose brother Sriram Hathwar co-won the contest in 2014, were declared this year’s winners.
The two Indian American boys squared off against only each other for more than 20 rounds, and nearly didn’t tie: Nihar had the opportunity to win after his older competitor stumbled on two of his turns. But, much like a tennis match, Nihar subsquently faltered himself, making their tie seem like destiny.
The Bee was scheduled from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. but lasted about an hour longer, thanks largely to new rules that allowed for 25 rounds among the final three contestants. But it was only a group of three for one round: The other competitor, Snehaa Ganesh Kumar, 13, of California, fell out early, leaving the Bee largely between Nihar and Jairam.
Nihar, who was wearing Velcro strap sneakers, awed fans by dropping serious knoweldge on some of his words.
“Is this a cheese?” he asked when given one word.
When they reached the final round where one could have beaten the other, neither showed a shred of weakness. Jairam nailed “Feldenkrais,” then Nihar slammed it home with “gesellschaft.”
Once the two boys realized they tied, they embraced and celebrated. Confetti poured down onto the stage, and the crowed seemed relieved that both boys, not just one, had won.
The Bee’s director, Paige Kimble, said that even though new rules were put in place to decrease the likelihhood of a tie, she knew that a deadlock was possible.
During the celebration, Nihar thanked his mother and said: “I’m just speechless. I can’t say anything. I’m only in fifth grade.”
Earlier in the night, the top 10 contenders mouthed words that were in English, technically. But the language was exotic, multi-syllabic, maybe something from “Game of Thrones.”
Myoclonus. Pneumatomachy. Hirundine. Comitatus.
“Okay, you need to give me a word I know,” said Mitchell Robson, 14, of Massachusetts, as he approached the microphone and ESPN cameras zoomed in on his face. “Please.”
“I’ll try and work with you,” said the Bee’s longtime pronouncer, Jacques Bailly, himself a previous Bee winner.
But who was Bailly kidding? He wasn’t going to work with Mitchell. The Bee Deity threw down the gauntlet to the eighth-grader: esquisse. It means a first, usually rough, sketch, as a picture or model of a statue.
“Uh . . . esquisse?” Mitchell said.
He asked for the definition and the word’s origin. He asked to hear it in a sentence.
“Is there anything else I can, like, get out of you?” he pleaded.
The crowd laughed nervously. Was Mitchell — whose humor made him popular all week with fans — finally choking?
The crowd boomed with applause. But not even Mitchell would last much longer.
The 89th Scripps National Spelling Bee championship final round was brutal. By late into the evening, the top 10 was down to the top five and still going.
The event, at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center at National Harbor, Md., began this week with 284 contestants from around the world. By Thursday morning, it resumed with 45 finalists who were whittled down to just 10 for the evening championship, aired live on ESPN.
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.”
Anytime anyone misspelled a word Thursday night, the crowd gave a standing ovation. Sometimes, like the Oscars, the kids thanked their team: parents, teachers and friends.
Mitchell’s kryptonite was “Wehrmacht,” the armed forces of Germany from 1935 to 1945. He spelled it V-E-R-M-A-C-H-T.
After he thanked his grandmother on stage, he told The Washington Post in a brief interview: “I knew that word in the back of my brain. I didn’t think about the beginning of the word hard enough. I could have gotten it.”
Earlier Thursday, all four Washington area students stumbled, including Tejas Muthusamy, a Richmond student who tied for seventh place last year and eighth the year before. Muthusamy’s early exit was such a stunner that he earned a standing ovation when he walked to the cookie couch. One fan asked for his autograph.
The Scripps Bee 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.
Indian American children again appear to be dominating the Bee, making up the majority of the final 10 competitors. They’ve won the past seven years in a row.
Some students, including Nihar, emerged as obvious crowd favorites: Jashun Paluru, 11, of Indiana, the youngest to make it that far; Sylvie Lamontagne of Colorado, who took ninth place last year and cracked up the audience when she asked Bailly, the pronouncer, for an easy word.
On Thursday night, Sylvie, another favorite, made it to the top five. Earlier in the evening, the Bee showed an interview with her back home in Colorado, where she showed off her tap-dancing and Scrabble skills.
“Words are fascinating because they can take you to a lot of places,” she said.
When it was her turn at the microphone, with more than an hour into the competition, she was among the final five.
Her word was “venetic,” the language of an ancient Italian people.
“Venetic,” she said. “V . . . can I start over?”
The crowd drew a long breath.
The verdict was rendered: “That is correct.”