How Eight Middle Schoolers Toppled the Scripps Spelling Bee

As the quality of the top contestants has ramped up dramatically in recent years, the national competition has struggled to keep up.

Each of the eight champions got to celebrate as they escaped the dreaded ding of the bell. Their winning words give a sense of the stunning breadth of word knowledge that they brought with them. (Susan Walsh / AP)

The sight of eight co-champions hoisting the ceramic trophy at the Scripps National Spelling Bee last night was a remarkable ending to a competition that the ESPN announcers kept referring to as “historic” and “unprecedented.” This year’s Bee was certainly one for the history books: There had never been more than two spellers sharing the top honor before this. Those elite eight—quickly dubbed the “Octochamps”—will be remembered for irrevocably altering the competition. A recent documentary on competitive spelling (particularly focusing on the dominance of Indian American kids in recent years) is titled Breaking the Bee. The Octochamps actually broke it this time.

As the quality of the top contestants at the national bee has ramped up dramatically in recent years, Scripps has struggled to keep pace. For three straight years, from 2014 to 2016, the final round ended in a two-way tie, after the co-champions exhausted the championship word list—a list of 25 of the most challenging words kept in reserve for the end of the competition. Scripps changed the rules in 2017, instituting a written test that would be used as a final tiebreaker. This year, they announced they were ditching the tiebreaker test, again allowing for co-champions. But the rules contemplated only the possibility of up to three spellers still battling it out at the end, certainly not eight.

Early yesterday, it became obvious that this year’s crop of competitors had broken through to a new level of orthographic aptitude. Fifty spellers—out of a total of 565 middle schoolers—had qualified for the early final rounds. (The number of contestants at nationals had swelled thanks to a new pay-to-play program called RSVBee, which allows spellers to qualify even if they haven’t won a regional spelling bee—as long as they pony up the $1,500 fee to attend and pay for their own travel and hotel accommodations. This year, 292 contestants came to the nationals that way.)

The final 50 who started the day were expected to get through the initial rounds by about 2 p.m., when the field was supposed to be whittled down to the 15 or so who would advance to the evening showdown televised on ESPN. As the clock crept toward 3:30, 25 spellers were still going strong, necessitating a killer round with extremely challenging vocabulary to winnow the field. Nine spellers went out after misspelling such words as palatschinken (a thin egg-batter pancake stuffed with jam that traveled from Latin to Romanian to Hungarian to German to English) and yertchuk (an Australian eucalyptus tree plucked from an Aboriginal language). These are among the hardest words on offer from the Scripps Bee’s reference of record, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary Unabridged, which weighs in at 2,800 pages in print with some 476,000 entries. It has expanded even more in the online version, which spellers are now expected to consult.

Sixteen competitors survived that round and were able to rest for a few hours before the main event. And, once again, it was abundantly evident that these middle schoolers were going to blow past the carefully worked-out program. Bee officials were forced to develop a contingency plan to accommodate the possibility of multiple champions after seeing how the field was shaping up. “When we began to comprehend the mettle of our finalists, we began to think about what could possibly happen this evening,” Paige Kimble, the executive director of the bee, told the Associated Press. “We went into the evening with the plan that we executed on this evening.”

In the 15th round of the finals, Miami’s Simone Kaplan, a crowd favorite, misspelled tettigoniid (relating to a family of insects including long-horned grasshoppers). That left eight out of the original 16, who were still batting down words with aplomb. After two more rounds went by with no eliminations, the pronouncer, Jacques Bailly, made a special announcement. “Champion spellers, we are now in uncharted territory,” Bailly told them. “We do have plenty of words remaining on our list. But we will soon run out of words that will possibly challenge you, the most phenomenal collection of super-spellers in the history of this competition.”

That meant that whoever managed to spell words correctly over the course of three more rounds would earn a share of the championship. And at the end of a dramatic Round 20, not a single speller had fallen. Each of the eight got to celebrate as they escaped the dreaded ding of the bell. Their winning words give a sense of the stunning breadth of word knowledge that they brought with them.

Rishik Gandhasri of San Jose, California, spelled auslaut (the final sound in a word or syllable). Erin Howard of Huntsville, Alabama, spelled erysipelas (an acute skin infection). Saketh Sundar of Clarksville, Maryland, spelled bougainvillea (a tropical woody vine with brilliant flowers). Shruthika Padhy of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, spelled aiguillette (a military shoulder cord). Sohum Sukhatankar of Dallas spelled pendeloque (a pear-shaped glass pendant). Abhijay Kodali of Flower Mound, Texas, spelled palama (webbing on the feet of aquatic birds). Christopher Serrao of Whitehouse Station, New Jersey, spelled cernuous (drooping, as a flower). And Rohan Raja of Irving, Texas, spelled odylic (relating to a hypothetical life force conceived in the 19th century). Cue the confetti.

These obscurities were no match for the elite eight, because they had all trained on the most diabolical words to be found in Webster’s Third. Before this year’s bee, Merriam-Webster released an analysis conducted with the language-learning app Babbel that identified the types of words most commonly misspelled at the Scripps Bee. About 48 percent have roots in the classical languages of Greek and Latin, while French and German supply the most frequently misspelled words among modern languages. Yet the eight co-champions were never fazed by any of these linguistic wellsprings, and indeed seemed to be on friendly terms with loanwords derived from Portuguese, Sanskrit, Korean, Irish, and a host of other languages.

As documented in Breaking the Bee, as well as in Shalini Shankar’s new book, Beeline, the training regimen of these elite spellers allows them to zero in on the words that they need to know in order to succeed at both the regional and national levels of the bee. Most of the top competitors have personal coaches, and six out of the eight co-champs used study materials from SpellPundit, a company started by the Dasari family of Spring, Texas. Shobha Dasari, a high-school senior now headed to Stanford, and her younger brother, Shourav, are both recent Scripps finalists. As Shobha told the AP, “It’s all the spellers’ hard work. We just give them the words.”

It’s no wonder that at the end of the evening, the Scripps Twitter account broke the news of the eight-way tie as “Dictionary loses.” (Merriam-Webster followed up: “The Dictionary concedes and adds that it is SO. PROUD.”) But now that the Octochamps have soundly defeated the dictionary, what’s next? Scripps might try to rejigger the rules again, but it’s clear that the bee will never be the same.