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Fort Worth student a co-champion at Spelling Bee

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Sriram Hathwar and Ansun Sujoe correctly spelled so many words Thursday that the Scripps National Spelling Bee had to declare them both winners. Credit: CNN

OXON HILL, Md. (AP) — When the confetti flew, the two boys stood in the center of the stage and shook hands. They held up the trophy together. Both were champions, a Spelling Bee finish unseen in more than half a century.

After all, it wouldn’t have seemed right for one of them to finish second. Sriram Hathwar and Ansun Sujoe had essentially used up the entire list of words the Bee had to offer. The one time Sriram misspelled, Ansun did too. Then they were spot on for their final 12 spellings combined, acing dark-corner-of-the-dictionary stuff like “thymelici,” ”encaenia,” ”skandhas,” ”sdrucciola” and “holluschick.”

Sriram had been a favorite to win. Ansun had come out of nowhere. When it was all done, 14-year-old Sriram from Painted Post, New York, and 13-year-old Ansun from Fort Worth’s Bethesda Christian, had each won $30,000 in cash as co-winners of the 87th Scripps National Spelling Bee.

“I think we both know that the competition is against the dictionary and not against each other,” Sriram said. “I’m happy to share this trophy with him.”

Not since 1962 had the Bee ended in a tie. It came about because the rules state that only 25 words remain once the competition is down to two or three spellers. Sriram thought he was a goner when he stumbled on “corpsbruder” (a close comrade), but Ansun then couldn’t handle “antigropelos” (waterproof leggings).

So they kept going, the spelling celebrity and the upstart, and the doomsday bell never sounded again.

Sriram was competing in the Bee for the fifth time and had finished third last year. He had received the full ESPN star treatment. Ansun, looking fashionable in a red bowtie, failed to get out of the preliminaries in his only previous appearance — and was one of Sriram’s fans.

“Definitely — I’d seen him in the finals,” Ansun said. “And I wanted to be like that.”

Turns out they’re exactly alike — at least in the final rankings.

“A veteran and, let’s say, a rookie,” Sriram said with a smile long after the confetti had settled. “It’s pretty cool.”

Sriram likes swimming, skating, playing basketball and the oboe and wants to be an ophthalmologist. (Both of his parents are doctors.) Ansun is a gifted musician and wants to be an engineer, like his father. Both are Indian-American, making it seven years in a row and 12 out of 16 that a speller of Indian descent has taken home the trophy. The run began in 1999 with Nupur Lala, who was featured in the documentary “Spellbound.”

The Bee is always good for colorful moments as bright kids enjoy their turn in the spotlight. This week, a new word was coined — “spellfie” — as spellers, family and fans took photos of themselves in addition to the usual rush to collect each other’s autographs. The week began with the annual barbecue, when Sriram was inducted into an oddly-named group of spellers that hang out online.

“I’m happy to represent ‘The Order of the Squushy Carrots,’ I guess,” he said onstage after his victory.

Ansun isn’t a Squushy Carrot — at least not yet — but he and Sriram have something more important in common that helped them come out on top. Ansun’s mother said her son has a photographic memory. Sriram said he’s studied the dictionary so much that he has a “GPS system” in his brain and can recall the page where a word appears.

“It’s like flipping through the dictionary in my mind,” Sriram said.

Those abilities to visualize the letters paid off. Sriram’s final word was “stichomythia,” a theatrical term. Ansun, told he was spelling for a tie, then wrapped up the competition with “feuilleton,” the features section of a European newspaper or magazine.

Then came the celebration. Among the biggest smiles was on the face of Bhageerathi Pathwar, Sriram’s grandmother, who made the trip from Bangalore just for the Bee.

“It was worth it,” she beamed.

___

Associated Press writer Ben Nuckols contributed to this report.

 

Word up: Behind the scenes at the National Spelling Bee By Steve Hendrix (c) 2014, The Washington Post.

WASHINGTON — This time, they out-spelled the spelling bee. For the first time since 1962, two students were declared co-champions of the Scripps National Spelling Bee after they exhausted the official word list before either could prevail.

At the end of a grueling 21-round final, the golden trophy was hoisted by 14-year-old Sriram Hathwar, competing in his fifth national bee, and 13-year-old Ansun Sujoe, making his second trip to the nation’s biggest spell-off.

“The competition was against the dictionary, not each other,” said a weary-but-wired Sriram, of Painted Post, N.Y., who had made the finals in two previous national bees and had declared his determination to win this one. He had to beat his brother in a regional bee to advance to annual championship at Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in Prince George’s County, Md.

“First, I want to rest,” said Ansun, a guitar, piano and bassoon player from Fort Worth.

The teens were the last two standing after a three-day competition that started with 281 spellers and a final round, broadcast live on ESPN, that began with just 12. Their shared victory came only after both stumbled in the evening’s 16th round. Sriram missed on “corpsbruder,” but he got a reprieve when Ansun flubbed his word, “antigropelos,” and the bee went into extra innings.

“If he missed his word, I knew I would come back,” Sriram said. “But I didn’t want him to miss it. He’s a really good speller.”

In the late 1990s, after some marathon spell-offs, the bee implemented rules that gave both spellers the win if they exhausted a special 25-word championship list that is brought out when the field is down to the final two.

“It’s a scenario we’ve been contemplating for 15 years but never had to implement before now,” said Paige Kimble, the bee’s executive director.

After several more rounds of perfect spelling, pronouncer Jacques Bailly said, “Ansun, if you spell this next word correctly, we will declare you and Sriram co-champions.”

The word was “feuilleton,” part of a European newspaper.

Nearly out of time — having asked for definition, part of speech and multiple repetitions — Ansun said, “Whatever.”

And then he nailed it. F-E-U-I-L-L-E-T-O-N.

Five of the finalists fell early. One was Tajaun Gibbison, an owlish 13-year-old from Jamaica who offered a winning, “Thank you, sir,” after receiving each word. He missed on “chartula.” Another was Kate Miller, 14, of Abilene, Texas, who got a big response every time she air-typed her words as she spelled them.

As the finalists walked off, each got a standing ovation from the other spellers.

The darling of the bee was 15-year-old Jacob Williamson of Cape Coral, Fla. He won the crowd over with the unbridled, arm-pumping screams of joy every time he nailed a word. When he made the final round, he pounded the stage floor.

His father, Daniel Williamson, a letter carrier, said Jacob tends to give full vent to his happiness. The home-schooled math whiz, who learned to read at 4, will raise a ruckus, for example, when he scores a good coin on eBay for his collection.

“He’s a free-range chicken, my friend,” said Williamson, looking over at his son. “People love him for his honesty and his joy of life.”

But Jacob, who made it through “rhadamanthine” and “carcharodont,” fell to “kabarogoya.”

“I know it. I know it,” he shouted with joy.But he didn’t. “What!?” he cried in disbelief when the bell ended his run. The crowd roared, “Noooo!” and rose to its feet.

Sriram’s mother, Roopa Hathwar, who is a doctor like his father, said her son studied more” after coming up just short of the trophy last year. It was his third time making the final round.

“He really increased his efforts,” she said. “He studied the dictionary more often and went over the words over and over.”

Thursday marked the most intense day of competition since spellers began gathering over the weekend. The welcome picnic, the autograph collecting and the messing with the free tablet they each got from Microsoft gave way to the contest’s hardest words and the unforgiving rhythm of live television. As the commercial breaks grew more frequent in prime time, each elicited a subtle ambient groan from the assembled.

“Sure, to a certain degree they want the competition to go on, and it s kind of agonizing to wait. But they do want their friends to see them on TV,” said Blake Gidden, a former national winner who was doing duty as a judge Thursday. Sitting next to the old hotel desk bell, he was the wielder of the dreaded ding.

___

Robert Francis
Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

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