The Scripps National Spelling Bee was broken Thursday night, brought to its knees by eight spellers who were too poised, too prepared and too savvy for any word thrown their way.
Faced with a dwindling word list and a group of spellers that showed no weakness, Scripps gave up and declared them co-champions, the most extraordinary ending in the 94-year history of the competition.
The eight co-champions spelled the final 47 words correctly in their historic walk-off victory, going through five consecutive perfect rounds.
“Champion spellers, we are now in uncharted territory,” bee pronouncer Jacques Bailly told them in announcing the decision to allow up to eight winners. “We do have plenty of words remaining on our list. But we will soon run out of words that will possibly challenge you, the most phenomenal collection of super spellers in the history of this competition.”
He wasn’t lying. The bee held three more rounds after that, and no one missed a word or even appeared to struggle.
The winners, who dubbed themselves “octo-champs,” were: Rishik Gandhasri, Erin Howard, Saketh Sundar, Shruthika Padhy, Sohum Sukhatankar, Abhijay Kodali, Christopher Serrao and Rohan Raja.
Also among those who advanced to round six was 13-year-old Aisha Randhawa of Corona, who tied for seventh place last year. But she fell in this year’s finals, misspelling “cuirassier.”
From 2014-2016, the bee ended with co-champions. In 2017 and last year, the bee had a written tiebreaker test of spelling and vocabulary that would be used to identify a single champion if necessary. It didn’t turn out to be needed, and bee officials decided the test was too burdensome and got rid of it.
— Scripps National Spelling Bee (@ScrippsBee) May 31, 2019
Aisha Randhawa plays the keyboard in jazz band. Lately, she's been regaling her family with fairly regular performances of the perennial classic, Ain't No Mountain High Enough. #SpellingBee #Speller50 pic.twitter.com/ZALL73557E
— Scripps National Spelling Bee (@ScrippsBee) June 1, 2018
A champion will be crowned Thursday night, taking home more than $50,000 in cash and prizes.
No matter what languages of origin were called upon — Yiddish, Afrikaans, Russian, the dreaded “unknown” — spellers were up to the task.
Among the words that might sound impossible to the TV audience but are considered by elite spellers to be near-layups: “maxixe,” ”oeillade,” ”Gebrauchsmusik,” ”Seychellois.”
Simone Kaplan, a 13-year-old from Davie, Florida, had a mic-drop moment, showing off the depth of her knowledge of roots. Given the word “varsovienne,” she asked: “Is this most likely from the Latin place name ‘Varsovia,’ meaning Warsaw?”
Why, yes. Yes it is.
Parents shook their heads, amazed by their kids’ depth of knowledge. Former spellers griped on social media that the words were too easy.
Perhaps one reason for the spellers’ performance: the burgeoning industry of spelling coaches and study guides that promise to crack the code of the bee. Thirteen of the 16 prime-time finalists and 38 of the 50 overall used study materials from SpellPundit, a business started by teenage ex-spellers Shobha Dasari and her younger brother, Shourav. The Dasaris offer a money-back guarantee if Scripps uses a word that’s not included in their guides.
“It’s all the spellers’ hard work,” 18-year-old Shobha said. “We just give them the words.”
The Dictionary concedes and adds that it is SO. PROUD. https://t.co/VY3TmUAwpr
— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) May 31, 2019
The key personality trait onstage was businesslike efficiency. Veteran spellers strode to the microphone confidently and never appeared rattled by the words they were given. Thirteen-year-old Rohan Raja of Irving, Texas, celebrated with fist pumps as he lumbered back to his seat.
Another machine-like speller: 13-year-old Sohum Sukhatankar of Dallas, sporting a black leather jacket, who advanced to the prime-time finals for the first time but is considered a favorite, with previous victories at the North South Foundation spelling bee and the South Asian Spelling Bee.
“I knew all the words I got. When I got them, I knew I was going to get them right,” Sohum said. “I took my time. If you spell too quickly, you could miss the word.”
Melodie Loya didn’t take that advice.
The 14-year-old from Bainbridge, New York, spelled her first word with such speed that when she returned to the microphone, pronouncer Jacques Bailly implored her to pace herself.
“I don’t want to put you off your game,” Bailly said, “but can you try and slow down maybe a little bit on your spelling?”
Spelling deliberately has obvious advantages: It prevents a speller’s mouth from moving faster than her brain. And, as Bailly, pointed out, it ensures the judges can understand what the speller is saying.
Melodie couldn’t help herself.
She started quickly and only got faster as she plowed through “madrague,” raising her hands in apparent surprise when she was told she got the word correct.
Every time at the microphone was a mini-drama for Melodie, whose facial expressions conveyed her exasperation, concentration and abject panic. She closed her eyes. She looked at the ceiling. She buried her face in her hands.
And when she spelled, she acted as if she couldn’t wait for it all to be over — until it wasn’t.
Melodie was eventually bounced by the word “theileriasis,” which just had too many vowel sounds she couldn’t figure out.
For many of her fellow spellers, referred to on their Scripps-issued T-shirts this year as “word detectives,” the clues were obvious and the suspects might as well have turned themselves in.