Donovan Slack / USA Today Washington Bureau
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- The bee world has a pair of new spellebrities. Yes, a pair.
New Yorker Sriram Hathwar, 14, and Texan Ansun Sujoe, 13, spelled to a tie at the Scripps National Spelling Bee, the first in more than 50 years.
After going five rounds without either missing a word, bee pronouncer Jacques Bailly declared them co-champions.
"I think we both knew that the competition was against the dictionary, not each other," Sriram said afterward. "I'm happy to share this trophy with him"
"I'm really shocked," Ansun said. "First, I'm going to take rest and then pretend everything's normal."
During the final round, Sriram spelled "stichomythia," which means a dialogue, especially of an altercation. Ansun nailed "feuilleton," defined as part of a European newspaper devoted to "material designed to entertain the general reader."
The spelling bee rules dictate that once three contestants are left, the pronouncer begins using a championship list of 25 words. If those words run out before a winner emerges, a tie is declared.
The last time that happened was in 1962, when Nettie Crawford of New Mexico and Michael Day of Missouri were declared co-champions.
Ansun Sujoe and Sriram Hathwar celebrate being co-champions at the 2014 Scripps National Spelling Bee. (Photo: Jack Gruber, USA TODAY)
Ansun and Sriram may have to share the title, but they won't have to share the prizes. Each will receive the full winner's booty -- a $30,000 cash prize, a $2,500 U.S. savings bond and a complete reference library from Merriam-Webster, and $1,200 worth of reference works from Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Both said they would "probably" put the money toward college, although Sriram said he would also like to travel a bit.
The competition that started Tuesday with 281 spellers from around the world was whittled down to 12 contestants – four girls and eight boys -- between 11 and 15 years old who made it to the final.
During the roughly 2 1/2-hour showdown, there was much hand-wringing and fidgeting, breath-holding and brow-furrowing among the mélange of braces, glasses, slouches, and high fives that have become a hallmark of the bee.
By the end of the fourth round of spelling Thursday night, half the contestants were gone. And at the start of the fifth, the last two girls were knocked out, one-two. Mary Horton, 13, missed "aetites" – a nodule of clay ironstone – and 14-year-old Alia Abiad of Illinois tripped up on "irbis" – a snow leopard.
Then it was down to the boys. There were three left at the end of the sixth round, Sriram, Ansun, and 13-year-old Missourian Gokul Venkatachalam. Gokul went on to spell "bamboche" – a Haitian social gathering – and "abaisse" – a thin undercrust of pastry – before missing "Kierkegaardian" – pertaining to philosopher Kierkegaard.
Ansun and Sriram continued on spelling, although they had a close call when both got their words wrong. Sriram missed "corpsbruder," (a close comrade), spelling it "k-o-r-b-r-u-i-t-e-r." Ansun erred on "antigropelos" (waterproof leggings), spelling it "a-n-t-i-g-r-o-p-o-l-o-s." But they each went error-free after that until the tie was declared in the 16th round of finals spelling.
Bee officials go through a yearlong process to select the words from among the roughly 470,000 in the Merriam Webster's Third New International Dictionary. A committee creates lists that spellers can use to study for the earlier rounds of competition, but for the finals, all bets are off. They get no such list.
The words for the final are pre-selected during a rigorous process that bee officials are loathe to talk about.
"The finals list is top secret," bee spokesman Chris Kemper said. "It is our secret sauce."
The finalists were culled from a field of 46 semi-finalists based on their performance during spelling rounds earlier Thursday and on a written spelling andvocabulary test Wednesday evening. There were some emotional moments during the semifinals. Two bee veterans who had been favored to make it to the finals, if not to win, were knocked out.
Vanya Shivashankar, a 12-year-old from Olathe, Kan., who tied for fifth place in 2013 and whose older sister, Kavya, is the 2009 champion, did not perform well enough on the written test to make it through.
Syamantak Payra, a 13-year-old from Friendswood, Texas, elicited a gasp from the audience when he misspelled "circumforaneous" and was eliminated before this year's final. He had tied for seventh place last year.
One speller, 12-year-old Virginian Jae Canetti, captured hearts during an introductory video when he spoke about his mother being diagnosed with cancer two months before he competed in last year's bee and how happy he was that she had recovered and how he felt he would do better because of it.
Unfortunately after the video played, Jae got "the one word I didn't know, pretty much," he said afterward. That word was "parseval," defined as a nonrigid airship. He spelled it "p-a-r-s-a-v-a-l" but received a standing ovation from the audience and the spellers on stage.
"I think it really reassured me because I kind of knew the audience was rooting for me," he said later. "I think that show of support really comforted me."