Pandemonium erupted – eight times – at the 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee as Thursday night turned to Friday. In a stunning conclusion to the competition, event organizers took the unprecedented step of naming eight co-champions after they all withstood 20 rounds of increasingly difficult words.
“We will soon run out of words that will possibly challenge you,” Jacques Bailly, the Bee’s longtime official pronouncer, said at the end of the 17th round, calling the eight winners “the most phenomenal assemblage of spellers in the history of this storied competition.”
With each correct response in the 20th and final round, a roar went up from the audience. When the last of the eight surviving finalists, Rohan Raja, spelled his word correctly to assure that all eight were winners, the ballroom shook and confetti rained down on the stage.
The 94-year-old competition has become increasingly competitive, with contestants training with coaches and some parents paying to bypass the traditional path to qualify for the annual contest, which takes place at the Gaylord National Resort in National Harbor, Maryland.
The Bee kicked off Tuesday with its biggest field ever, and the co-champions bested 557 other contestants ranging in age from 7 to 14 in Thursday night’s prime-time finals. The result was the first time more than two co-champions were named, with winners from five different states.
They are: Rishik Gandhasri, 13, of California; Erin Howard, 14, of Alabama; Saketh Sundar, 13, of Maryland; Shruthika Padhy, 13, of New Jersey; Sohum Sukhatankar, 13, of Texas; Abhijay Kodali, 12, of Texas; Christopher Serrao, 13, of New Jersey and Rohan Raja, 13, of Texas.
“It feels amazing that I’m here with all these amazing spellers,” Abhijay said after the Bee. ” I’m speechless.”
The groundbreaking finals capped a day of intense competition that began at 10 a.m. with the field of 50 spellers meant to be narrowed to about a dozen finalists by 2 p.m. In a sign of what was to come, the contestants proved more resilient than ever before.
By 3 p.m., the Bee’s organizers resorted to what Shalini Shankar, a professor at Northwestern University, called a “lawn mower” round of extremely hard words intended to winnow the remaining field. It worked, with spellers knocked out by head-spinning words such as Wundtian, coelogyne and yertchuk. Yet other spellers vanquished the likes of huiscoyol, bremsstrahlung and ferraiolone to advance to the finals.
Saketh Sundar, 13 and already a four-year veteran of the Bee, made the finals after what he said was a physically taxing first half of the day.
“I was very tired, and I also did not drink a lot of water,” the Clarksville, Maryland, middle schooler said. “Since it’s going so fast, if you go to the bathroom you might miss your turn.”
The day’s high drama mirrored the most nerve-racking moments in sports, a point underscored by a video on ESPN’s big screen that juxtaposed Colette Giezentanner successfully inching her way through the word “choledoch” with Kawhi Leonard’s four-bounce game-winner against the Sixers in the NBA playoffs. When the judge uttered “correct,” the audience erupted in cheers.
Much has changed since Bailly himself won the Bee in 1980. The winning words from that bygone era – croissant in 1970, incisor in 1975, luge in 1984 – would make today’s finalists laugh.
Ansun Sujoe, a 2014 co-champion whose sister Hephzibah reached this year’s finals, said that just five years later, he barely recognizes the event.
“What I went through at this phase was two rounds and it lasted less than two hours,” he said. “This lasted five hours. It tells you how much smarter these kids are. My sister knew way more words than I do, and I was like, ‘Wow, good job!'”
Experts say many of the contestants who made it to the final 50 have personal coaches and spend practically every waking hour studying in preparation for this moment. The result is an unprecedented field of master spellers.
Another game-changing development is the new invitational program known as “RSVBee,” now in its second year. In the past, spellers reached the national event only by winning a regional bee and securing a sponsor, often a newspaper, to cover expenses. But with the advent of RSVBee, which supplied 292 of this year’s 565 contestants, families who can afford a $1,500 entry fee – plus six nights at the $300-a-night Gaylord and other expenses – can bypass the traditional path to the Bee.
“It’s made the field balloon in an unprecedented way,” said Shankar, who is also the author of “Beeline: What Spelling Bees Reveal About Generation Z’s New Path to Success,” adding that the pay-to-play model may “change the character of the Bee and who gets here.” But she noted that even the kids who compete under the aegis of a sponsor typically have the help of a paid coach, “so it’s rare that you see someone of really humble means making it here anymore.”
Scott Remer, a New York-based tutor and author of a spelling bee textbook, coaches three of the 16 finalists. He said winning the Bee takes more than rote memorization. His students study word roots and how to spell sounds in Latin, Greek, German, Japanese and several other languages.
“A good speller knows a lot of words,” Remer said. “A great speller is able to spell pretty much any word that you throw at them because they’re able to use this process to break the word down and come up with a very well-educated guess.”
The eight champions were more than great spellers – they were the best. Each will receive the $50,000 prize that is usually reserved for just one champion.
After the Bee, the winners said they were pulling for each other in the final round, spelling each word silently from their seats at the side of the stage.
“I think most of us knew most of each other’s words,” Saketh said, “because we’re, like, pretty good.”