For those lucky enough to stroll into the Maryland Ballroom at the Gaylord Hotel and Convention Center in National Harbor, an enclave outside of Washington DC, on the evening of June 1st, the 90th Scripps National Spelling Bee was truly a spectacle worthy of great memories. And aside from families, spellers, and media reps clad in various shades of casual dress, high-ranking outsiders dressed to the nines in suits and ties and snappy dresses occupied a reserved section at the front of the ballroom just behind the judges. These included members of the Scripps family themselves. Before the bee and during its frequent breaks, water bottles were passed through the reserved section and quaffed. It was not hard to imagine the water bottles were actually champagne glasses, and indeed, the pre-bee spectacle in this rarefied air took on the feel of a semi-formal reception at times. It was a reminder of the fact that spelling bees are – and have always been – a form of entertainment as well as educational tools.
Since this was the 90th bee of its type, Scripps felt compelled to commemorate the occasion. Executive director Paige Kimble and the bee staff had assembled a very professionally-crafted video alternately marking random years in the bee’s history, interspersed with great commentary from recent high-ranking spellers, their parents, and Dr. Jacques Bailly, the bee’s highly-esteemed pronouncer. How does studying for the bee affect a student’s lifestyle? Glimpses into the bedrooms and study rooms of spellers, whose surfaces were littered with flash cards and whose walls were papered with language patterns and roots, gave the answer a visceral feel. Why is the bee so quintessentially American? Why wouldn’t it thrive in other languages? Dr. Bailly described the historical influence of other languages on English vividly, then stated that English often didn’t bother making the spelling of immigrated words conform to English rules, further allowing a motley, vibrant language unlike any other on the planet.
The video ended, and after recognizing past champions in the audience (including yours truly and a bevy of recent winners who had returned to volunteer for the bee), Paige Kimble then ceded the stage to the real reason everyone was there that night: the final, top 15 spellers in the nation. I quickly encouraged everyone connected to me on Facebook to tune in, pop some popcorn, and get ready to witness perhaps “the most intense spelling bee in history.” Was it? Maybe. Did it disappoint? Not for a second.
Over the past few years, the Scripps National Spelling Bee had almost begun to feel stale in its final rounds, and three years’ worth of co-champions implied that perhaps the bee had lost its edge. Indeed, last year’s co-champion Nihar Janga, more than anyone, gave the impression that he was almost bored with the words he was given, brusquely defining them before spelling them and proving that he was worthy of the title before officially claiming it. Nihar’s workaday manner toward spelling his words gave last year’s bee a bitter edge, making it a sad chore to watch and resulting in the least fun and rewarding bee in years. It was almost as if he was playing with the bee the way a cat would bat at a string.
That all was amended this year with a championship word list that ran up and down and everywhere. It did include words that most expert spellers had seen before, like heiligenschein and voussoir (both seen in round 22), so despite being a dazzling show for newcomers, these words didn’t do much for the spellers themselves. But after dipping into these words, it grew more arcane until it reached the likes of cecidomyia (a fearsome word naming the genus of gall midges) and sceloporus (another genus word: describing pine and sagebrush lizards). Here was finally where the bee grew monstrous, and potentially unbeatable. No more batting around this bee: this was one with a potentially devastating sting.
And sting it did, finally, in the 35th round, with the near-inscrutable palindrome marram, describing a type of beach grass. For the first time in two days, Rohan Rajeev, a clinical presence from Oklahoma with a knack for quickly dissecting and spelling words, hesitated and looked uncertain after asking the appropriate questions. And on marram, he blurted out m-a-r-e-m with mere seconds left on the clock. With that ding, his chance at the championship was lost.
But Ananya Vinay, a Fresno, California sixth-grader two years younger, was quicker, more clinical, and ultimately, the more accomplished speller. She seemed to take her speedy cue from Shourav Dasari, a brilliant veteran speller who, in the 13th round, whipped out Mogollon in four seconds without a single hesitation, a single question…indeed, without even waiting for head judge Mary Brooks to tell him, “correct” before he was halfway back to his seat. From then on Ananya’s pace sped up accordingly, and she treated each word as a task to be completed as quickly and sweatlessly as possible. She finished off her two final words, gifblaar and marocain, with equal speed and thoroughness. And though Mary Brooks told her she was correct, the confetti cannons roared, and the crowd went wild, she seemed frozen and unable to show any indication that she had won…until her dad stormed the stage and nearly bowled her over with excitement.
If Ananya puzzlingly showed little to no emotion, even at the moment of victory, other spellers compensated. In perhaps the bee’s most dramatic single moment – and one that will be talked about for years – Maggie Sheridan struggled to understand Dr. Bailly’s correct pronunciation of whirlicote in the fourth round. Worse, even when she finally grasped the correct pronunciation, she seemed not to notice the time clock ticking away her mere two minutes. Finally, she began spelling, and with one second remaining, rattled off the final five letters, allowing Mary Brooks to relievedly utter, “Correct!” Maggie responded “What?”, her hands flew up in victory, and she nearly lost her balance leaning back in disbelief as the crowd cheered her success. Even Dr. Bailly was unnerved, and told her once the cheering had died down, “Please don’t do that again!” In less dramatic, but no less entertaining fashion, Alex Iyer, a two-time national competitor from San Antonio, quickly became the bee darling, enjoying nervewracking victories over the likes of salicylism and velamentum. In the tenth round, he heard the unfamiliar savate, decided it was his turn to go, and threw out the first five letters in just a second or two before hearing his ding as well. And in devastating fashion, the three spellers most favored to win this year each saw their Waterloo in harsh fashion: Orlando’s Siyona Mishra fell on the unfamiliar Corriedale in round 5; Richmond’s Tejas Muthusamy, a four-time repeater, was undone by saussurite in the twelfth round; and the remaining favorite, Shourav Dasari, unsuccessfully battled a tricky pronunciation of Struldbrug, an old, immortal being from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, bowing out in round 15.
The 90th Scripps National Spelling Bee will go down in history as an excellent bee, one where favorites were felled, emotions ran high, and the top two were uniformly excellent. But more to the point, it was the first bee since 2013 where one champion reigned supreme. Congratulations to all of the spellers, particularly those mentioned here, for demonstrating great skills and knowledge onstage, and for the long hours of work to get here…long hours that few see, but whose endpoint was readily evident this past week.