Dev Shah of Florida wins Scripps National Spelling Bee; Several Indian Americans excelled in competition

Dev Shah of Florida, winner of the Scripps National Spelling Bee June 1, 2023. PHOTO Twitter @DvtippdBrr

Only two spellers were left onstage, so Charlotte Walsh and Dev Shah scooched into new seats, even closer to the big camera pointed in their faces.

They looked at each other, aghast. Charlotte – a 14-year-old from Arlington – covered her mouth with one hand. It was Thursday night, and the fifth round of finals for the Scripps National Spelling Bee was about to start. A countdown thundered over the ballroom speakers. Dev, 14, of Largo, Fla., politely clapped.

“7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.”


Dev aced his word, bathypitotmeter, or an instrument designed to record the velocity of water. Then, it was Charlotte’s turn.

Dev Shah of Florida, hoists trophy as he wins Scripps National Spelling Bee June 1, 2023. PHOTO Twitter videograb from GIF @ScreppsBee

Soon, one of them would be declared the 2023 champion. They were both gunning for the bee’s top prize – $50,000 in cash, a commemorative medal, and the Scripps Cup, which appeared in the arms of dozens of champions pictured on banners strung along the Hallway of Champions.

Charlotte’s word: daviely, meaning listlessly.

“Oh, my god,” she said, panic flashing across her face.

She wagered a guess, and the air in the room went still.


It was the dreaded bell, signaling that she’d gotten the spelling incorrect. That meant that – if Dev got the next word right – he would be the winner.

He stepped up to the microphone, reminding himself to take it slow. He’d been at this since second grade, when his parents had signed him up for his first spelling bee, but his nerves still got to him sometimes.

Jacque Bailly – the longtime pronouncer of the bee – said the word slowly.


Dev took a deep breath.

Earlier that evening, he’d been one of 11 finalists to clamber onto a big stage at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Md., hoping for a shot at spelling bee glory. The ballroom was washed in blue light, and previous contestants – who’d gotten out in earlier rounds of the three-day event – hoisted foam hands into the air.

“Bee week!” they shouted. “BEST week!”

Cameras dangled from massive arms that swooped over the audience. More cameras swarmed the families of each speller, including Dev’s parents, capturing every facial tic. The words were hard – really hard – and it didn’t take long for the grimacing to begin. The selection had been plucked from the bee’s official bible – the Merriam-Webster Unabridged – up to a year in advance.

“That difficulty level is high,” explained Corrie Loeffler, the bee’s executive director.

In alternating rounds, finalists had confronted word spelling, then meaning, selected from multiple-choice options. Of 231 total spellers, these 11 had made it to the final round, which was televised on ESPN. At the back of the ballroom, Dev could see commentator Paul Loeffler atop a smaller stage, where he was discussing the evening’s significance with 2021 champion Zaila Avant-Garde, who’d leveraged her win into a best-selling book.

There were 10 other past champions in attendance, too, including 1973, 2000, 2008, 2009, 2016, two of 2019’s record eight winners, and 2022’s winner, Harini Logan, who won last year after a late-night, rapid-fire spell-off. Now 15, she considered herself retired. Bailly was also a bee champion in 1980.

Dev wondered if he might be among them soon.


He thought about the word’s roots – psam, meaning sand, and phile, meaning lover.

The definition, Bailly said, was a plant or animal that prefers or thrives in sandy areas.

Dev smiled, his braces flashing.

That he was here, standing under the bright stage lights, felt remarkable.

He’d already outlasted so many others. Seven of his competitors had competed in the bee in previous years. So had he – tying for 51st place in 2019 and 76th place in 2021. He played tennis and the cello and read a lot of historical fiction.

But mostly he loved to spell.

He listened intently to his competitors’ words. Four of them had been from California. ESPN commentator Loeffler liked to call them the “California contingent.”

Tarini Nandakumar, one of numerous Indian American contenders for the 2023 Scripps National Spelling Bee finals June 1, 2023. PHOTO: Twitter @ScrippsBee

The youngest was a petite 11-year-old from Omaha named Sarah Fernandes, who clipped back her neatly curled hair with barrettes and scrunched up her face when she spelled – to better concentrate, she said.

Sarah Fernandes, among the youngest at 11 years old, competing in the Scripps National Spelling Bee finals June 1, 2023. PHOTO: Twitter @ScrippsBee

Her older sister, who’d also competed at the bee, had told her that, someday, she might make it to the big stage. That she had – and so young – captivated the audience. When Sarah was eliminated in the first round of finals, people were visibly devastated. After hearing the ting of the bell, she nodded her head vigorously, trying not to seem upset.

Surya Kapu, one of several Indian American contenders for the 2023 Scripps National Spelling Bee. PHOTO: Twitter @ScrippsBee

The room erupted into applause so loud that head judge Mary Brooks – wielder of the miserable bell – could barely get a word in.

“Your joy and your energy have made you a fan favorite,” Brooks said, congratulating Sarah on making it to the finals at such a young age.

The girl rushed off the stage, into the arms of her mom.

Dev knew he could face a similar fate. But on he continued, even as more spellers were eliminated.

Dhruv Subramanian, one of several Indian American contenders in the 2023 Scripps National Spelling Bee that concluded June 1, 2023. PHOTO: Twitter @ScrippsBee

Pranav Anandh of Pennsylvania, 14, had been confounded by the word querken, or to cause to gasp. At the sound of the bell at the end of the first round, the audience querkened.

Pranav Anandh spelling a word at the June 1, 2023 finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. PHOTO: Twitter @ScrippsBee

In the second round, 12-year-old Tarini Nandakumar, of Austin, failed to guess the meaning of chthonic, or concerning to the underworld. That left eight spellers. Some pantomimed typing the word on a keyboard. Others pretended to write it on the palm of their hand.

Confetti rains down as Dev Shah enjoys his triumph as the new 2023 National Spelling Bee Champion June 1, 2023. PHOTO: Twitter @ScrippsBee

Dev took deep breaths.

The words continued, rapid-fire.

More spellers dropped, including all four of the California contingent, one after the other. Arth Dalsania, 14, of Thousand Oaks, lost on katuka, or a venomous snake of southeastern Asia. He was followed by two 12-year-olds – Dhruv Subramanian of Danville, noted for his confident demeanor and black turtleneck; Vikrant Chintanaboina of San Ramon, who’d been to the bee twice before; and 13-year-old Shradha Rachamreddy of San Ramon, who loved ice cream and badminton.

After 13-year-old Surya Kapu dropped, it had been down to Charlotte and Dev.

Now, he smiled again.

He was pretty sure he knew this word.


“That is correct!”

Behind him, Charlotte stood, clapping, and then pulling him into a hug.

Multicolored lights whirled. Confetti swirled from the ceiling. The cameras whirred above the crowd, zooming in on his face.

His parents were crying, telling the cameras how proud they were of their son.

The trophy was placed in Dev’s hands. He hoisted it above his head.

“It’s surreal,” he said. “My legs are still shaking.”

He couldn’t stop smiling.



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