Bruhat Soma wins Scripps National Spelling Bee in second-ever spell-off

Bruhat Soma, 12, of Florida, wins the Scripps National Spelling Bee on Thursday at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Md. MUST CREDIT: Matt McClain/The Washington Post

Confetti erupted from the ceiling with a bang Thursday night as Bruhat Soma, 12, was declared the 2024 Scripps National Spelling Bee champion.

Bruhat Soma from Florida wins the Scripps National Spelling Bee over Faizan Zaki, from Texas, in National Harbor, Maryland, U.S., May 30, 2024. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

For only the second time in bee history, the contest ended in a 90-second spell-off, in which the two finalists – Bruhat Soma, 12, of Tampa; and Faizan Zaki, 12, of Allen, Tex., each got 90 seconds to spell the same list of words in the same order, one after the other. The two were kept separated, with headphones on, as each competitor took their turn.

The crowd fell silent as they waited for the spell-off to begin. One woman whispered excitedly to her neighbor: “I’ve been hoping for this all week!”

Aditi Muthukumar, 13, of Colorado, leaves the stage after missing a word during the finals. MUST CREDIT: Matt McClain/The Washington Post

Bruhat, who went first, stunned the crowd with his speed. His fingers flew through the air with each word, as if typing on invisible keys. In 90 seconds, he spelled 29 correctly.

Faizan spelled 20 correctly.

“That was amazing,” said the Bee’s longtime pronouncer and 1980 spelling bee champion Jacques Bailly as he prepared to crown a champion. “That was really amazing.”

Bruhat’s eyes widened as he heard Bailly announce his name. He looked out into the crowd at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Md., which had risen to its feet in raucous applause.

Bruhat Soma, 12, and his family onstage at Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Md. MUST CREDIT: Matt McClain/The Washington Post

Bruhat raised the gleaming white Scripps Cup over his head as photographers closed in around him and bits of colorful confetti paper floated down through the air.

Clutching the trophy to his chest, he said, “I’m still shaking.”

Bruhat later said he never imagined that this moment – a moment he saw only in his dreams – could be real.

He was nervous throughout the competition, he said, listening closely to every word offered to each contestant. If there were some he did not know, he said, he took notice. Some would end up on his own personal list of words to practice.

But when time came Thursday for the rapid-fire spell-off, Bruhat said, he felt an overwhelming sense of calm.

This is what he had trained for.

Every day for the past six months, Bruhat said, he practiced drilling words as fast as he possibly could for 90-second intervals. He knew that if he made it far enough in the bee, a spell-off was a possibility. And he wanted to feel prepared.

Faizan Zaki from Texas celebrates spelling a word correctly during the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee competition in National Harbor, Maryland, U.S., May 30, 2024. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

“When the spell-off came, I thought, maybe I have a shot at this,” Bruhat said. “My heart was beating so fast until they told me that I won.”

The only other time a spell-off was used to declare a champion was in 2022, when Harini Logan spelled 22 words correctly in 90 seconds to win.

This year’s bee, the 95th, featured six returning finalists. In addition to the Scripps Cup, the winner took home $50,000.

Faizan Zaki and Bruhat Soma shake hands during the Scripps National Spelling Bee, in National Harbor, U.S., May 30, 2024. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

Surrounded by reporters after his victory, Bruhat beamed.

“I feel like a celebrity, kind of,” the 12-year-old said.

Bruhat offered his congratulations to Faizan, who went toe to toe with him until the final round. They talk regularly, Bruhat said, and have cheered each other on for years. Both boys have made three appearances at the bee.

Faizan, who is in the sixth grade, could make another run at the championship next year.

“I’m so happy for him; he did amazing,” Bruhat said.

Just eight spellers made it to the nationally broadcast finals on Thursday night – the smallest final field in recent years, according to Scripps officials. With each round, and a ring of the dreaded elimination bell, that number shrank.

Kirsten Santos, 13, was the third contestant eliminated Thursday night, leaving five. She was the only previous finalist who had made it to this year’s last round. She misspelled apophasis, the raising of an issue by claiming not to mention it.

Her smile fell as the bell rang, eyes lowered behind her glasses.

Kirsten had her heart set on victory after a finish in the finals last year and another chance at the trophy on Thursday. The eighth-grader looked crestfallen as she left the stage. She won’t return to next year’s competition because she is in her final year of eligibility.

Bruhat Soma holds up his trophy as he celebrates with family members after winning the Scripps National Spelling Bee, in National Harbor, U.S., May 30, 2024. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

“You took last year and you came back, and look at the amazing performance that you did this year,” judge Mary Brooks told Kirsten after she was eliminated. “You have so much to be proud of and we can’t wait to see what you’re going to do next.”

Two hundred and forty-five spellers took the stage this week. They were from all 50 states, as well as D.C., Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and ranged in age from an 8-year-old third-grader to a 15-year-old eighth-grader. Several competitors from the D.C. region, including Navya Dwivedi, 13, of Columbia, Md., and Nargiza Muzhapaer, 13, of Merrifield, Va., made it to the semifinals. But by the end of the day Wednesday, all local spellers had been eliminated.

Thursday night’s finals began with a band taking the stage and a color guard making its way down the aisles. Spellers who had been eliminated in previous rounds packed into seats at the front of the arena and cheered. Some climbed up to stand on their seats. They clapped their hands and bounced on the balls of their feet. Between commercial breaks, they stretched and told jokes.

From the stage, comedian Zach Sherwin, who acted as the evening’s onstage emcee, asked the audience to show off talents and their hometown pride by calling out the first letter of the states they came from to attend this year’s national contest. Rows of children contorted their bodies into the shape of letters.

“Is that an N?” Sherwin said from the stage. “Nebraska?”

The crowd shouted a unified response: “New York!”

“Oh,” Sherwin said. “Of course! New York!”

Spellers whooped.

Despite the tension palpable from the stage, the room pulsed with excitement. Former spellers yelled wildly as their peers got word after word correct. When a finalist was eliminated, the audience cheered appreciatively.

When the spell-off was announced, a chant echoed through the packed auditorium: “Spell-off! Spell-off!”

Now that he had earned a national spelling bee title, Bruhat said he might devote more time to his other love: basketball. He didn’t have much time for sports this year, he said, because he was drilling words with his dad or his coach, Sam Evans, in nearly all of his free time.

He hoped that winning the national title might come with some other, less obvious perks, too.

During a news conference after the final round of the bee, Gavin Gracey, 13, a reporter from Scholastic Kids Press, asked whether this title might get him out of any future spelling tests at school.

Bruhat smiled.



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