National Spelling Bee rivals Kirsten Santos and Surya Kapu vie for supremacy after tying last year

Kirsten Santos, a 12-year-old from Texas, advances to the semifinals at the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Oxon Hill, Md., on Wednesday. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Marvin Joseph
Fourteen-year-old Surya Kapu of Utah, in a yellow T-shirt, takes his seat after correctly spelling a word Wednesday at the Scripps National Spelling Bee. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Marvin Joseph







The 199th speller was still at the microphone when Kirsten Santos shuffled toward the middle of the stage, the bright lights reflecting off her cherry-red combat boots. It was almost her turn.

The audience clapped. Kirsten heard Jacques Bailly – the longtime pronouncer for the Scripps National Spelling Bee and its 1980 champion – say her name. Her picture flashed on the projector screen: glittery headband, wire-frame glasses, pink lip gloss.

Kirsten, 12, took a deep breath.

The first word of her second national spelling bee: galena.

Kirsten asked Bailly to repeat the definition. He explained that it was a bluish-grey mineral with metallic luster consisting of lead sulfide. She pretended to write the word on the palm of her right hand.

In the audience, her father covered his mouth with one hand. It wasn’t the first time Levi Santos had watched his daughter confront words that most adults couldn’t spell. In 2019, when she was 8, Kirsten had won the National Spanish Spelling Bee, studying for two hours every day to memorize more than 60,000 words. It seemed to come to her naturally. She speaks four languages including her family’s native Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines.

Kirsten, who lives in Richmond, Tex., wagered a guess: g-a-l-e-n-a.

“Correct,” Bailly said.

More spellers took the stage, the tink of the bell signaling doom for some, while others moved forward. Soon, it was 14-year-old Surya Kapu’s turn.

If anyone could stand in the way of Kirsten winning the bee, it would be him – and vice versa. They were the only returning finalists from the previous year, having tied for fifth place. Now, they were both vying for the championship and all it meant: a $50,000 prize, a shiny trophy, bee fame.

Seated on the other side of the stage at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center at National Harbor in Maryland, Surya was dressed in a T-shirt and Puma sneakers in his lucky color – a sunshiny yellow. He had worn the same hue at the first local spelling bee he’d won four years ago, when he was in fourth grade. On this day, he hoped it would bring good things – maybe even a win, which would make him the first bee champion from Utah.

“I’ve worked hard for this,” he said. “It would be really nice to see it pay off.”

Surya took his place at the microphone. He shifted from foot to foot, successfully spelling sororal – “like sisters” – and picking the correct meaning of the word primeval, or relating to the early ages. He still got nervous on the stage, he said, but he tried to breathe slowly and not speak too fast.

From the audience, his family whooped.

More and more difficult words had been thrown into the mix in recent years, lessening the likelihood of multiple winners. The competition was only going to get stiffer to get to the final on Thursday night.

To win outright, Surya and Kirsten knew, one of them would have to lose.

– – –

They’d both walked down the Hallway of Champions at National Harbor, admiring the faces peering down at them.

The banners honored more than nine decades of champions – wide smiles with gleaming braces, cheeks studded with acne, arms wrapped around massive trophies. The pictures went from black-and-white to high-definition color.

The reigning champion of last year’s bee, Harini Logan, walked through the venue like a celebrity. She gave spellers advice – focus on each word, one at a time – and signed everyone’s guides. She was commentating this year but was otherwise retired from spelling.

She’s 15.

“It’s remarkable how much talent is onstage,” said Harini, whose winning word had been moorhen, or a female red grouse. “These spellers have such a way with words.”

She noticed Kirsten playing with some Legos – shaking off nervous energy before her next round – and stopped by to say hello.

“I’m so glad you’re doing it again this year!” Harini said.

“The stakes are very high,” Kirsten said. “If I won, I’d be the first bilingual champion. I don’t want anyone to achieve that before me.”

She’d been envisioning her win. She conjured confetti, the trophy heavy in her arms.

When asked about Surya, Kirsten crossed her arms.

“I’m not worried about him at all,” she said. “We haven’t even met. … He’s like any other speller. It’s not a battle against spellers. It’s a battle against the dictionary. It’s the words we are put against. I’m not going to be asked how to spell Surya’s name.”

His last name, Kapu, was in the dictionary, making it fair game.

– – –

By Wednesday afternoon, 56 of 231 spellers had advanced to the semifinals.

There was 12-year-old Aiden Wijeyakulasuriya, from Wisconsin, who had pushed his wheelchair to the microphone in the fourth round and received a whopper of a word – seven syllables, nearly unpronounceable.


It meant inflammation or damage to the filtering part of the kidney.

He aced it.

So did Sarah Fernandes – a pint-size 11-year-old from Nebraska who’d quickly become a crowd favorite – who surmised that finagle meant “to obtain something by trickery.”

But the 14-year-old who’d entered the bee a historic six times wasn’t moving forward. Akash Vukoti lost in the fourth round, misspelling the word graisse, or a type of saturated fat.

Now, after breaking for lunch, the spellers ascended the stage again. The semifinals were beginning. The group needed to be winnowed once more before Thursday evening’s finals.

Surya thought through all the words he’d studied. He wasn’t worried about the other competitors either, he said.

“I don’t really view anyone here as a competitor,” he said. “It’s more like us against the words.”

The spellers dropped off, one by one.

“Prepare the bell,” joked 11-year-old Isaac Brogan of Ontario after being confronted with the word tenrec, or a small insectivorous mammal native to Madagascar.

“All right, I’m going to try this out,” he said, spelling out the word.

The bell chimed.

“No!” he said, his face crumpling.

Head Judge Mary Brooks – ringer of the dreaded bell – had kind words for him, along with every other child who failed to move forward.

“Isaac, you have represented your country of Canada so well,” Brooks said. “And at 11, you have more chances.”

Kirsten approached the microphone, confident. It was now the sixth round of the semifinals. When she heard her word – a protein obtained from egg yolk – she blinked. She asked for all of the word’s information. She thought. She asked for the information again, then made a guess: l-i-v-e-t-y-n.

The bell rang.

She’d mistaken the second “i” for a “y.”

Brooks reminded her of how far she’d come.

“I have been so impressed with you, as has everyone in this room,” she said. “You are an amazing lady and an outstanding speller. I can’t wait to see what you do in 2024.”

Soon, it was Surya’s turn. He carefully spelled his word, cyclas, or an unfitted rectangle of cloth with an opening for the head.

The audience braced, waiting to see if the bell would ring yet again.


He had made it through the round – and then the next two rounds, until he had earned a spot at Thursday evening’s finals with 10 other spellers, including Sarah from Nebraska and 14-year-old Charlotte Walsh from Virginia.

The spellers stood onstage, medals around their necks, as ESPN broadcaster Paul Loeffler asked them how they were feeling.

“You tied for fifth last year; where did you set your goals this year?” the broadcaster asked Surya. The 14-year-old didn’t hesitate.




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