And then there were two.
Sriram Hathwar and Ansun Sujoe made history as they were crowned co-champions of the 2014 Scripps National Spelling Bee.
Sweat beading on their foreheads under dozens of bright studio lights, the boys battled it out until only one word remained – feuilleton.
“Ansun, if you spell this word correctly, we’ll declare both you and Sriram co-champions,” said Dr. Jacques Bailly, former bee winner and official pronouncer. Both boys had misspelled one of their words, which is what set up the final result.
Sujoe traced the word – which means a part of a European newspaper – on the back of his placard before spelling it unhesitatingly. The crowd went wild, confetti sprayed the stage and both boys grinned as they shook hands.
“The competition was with the dictionary, not each other,” said fifth-time competitor Sriram Hathwar as he accepted half of the shining trophy. The 14-year-old of Corning, New York, tied for third place in 2013.
“I was pretty happy when I made the finals and now I’m even happier that I’m co-champion,” said Ansun Sujoe, an eighth-grader from Fort Worth, Texas and second-timer at the bee.
The competition began at the Gaylord National Convention Center in Maryland on Tuesday with a computerized written round. On Wednesday, 281 spellers, ranging in age from 8 to 15, took the stage for rounds two and three. They were whittled down to 46 for the semifinals Thursday and then again to a lucky dozen for the final competition that evening.
The audience alternatively buzzed and held its breath as words such as witloof, Weissnichtwo and rasgado were given to the kids. A quick ding of a bell signaled if they were incorrect. One misspelling on stage meant they were out of the competition for good.
In between the bizarre words and intense pressure, the quirks stood out.
Eighth-grader Kate Miller of Abilene, Texas “air-typed” the words and even hit enter as she spelled. Jacob Williamson, 15, of Bonita Springs, Florida, screamed, threw his fists in the air and jumped up and down on stage each time he got a word he knew.
“My parents have always said I’m probably the least nervous person up here,” Williamson said after the finalists were announced. In round 10 of the finals, he screamed, “I know it, I know it, I totally know it!” before misspelling kabaragoya.
Many spellers scribbled the words on trembling palms with their fingers and then recited the correct letters immediately. Others asked for definitions, pronunciations, parts of speech and language of origin before they hesitatingly attempted their words.
“Can I take a deep breath please?” asked Neha Seshadri, 13, of Detroit, Michigan as she stood at the microphone. “Now back to business,” she said before spelling taiga correctly.
This isn’t the first time on the national stage for many of the kids – 78 of them are repeating for a second time or more.
The sense of camaraderie is clear – the spellers high-fived each other and clapped enthusiastically after every victory. When the decisive ding of the bell signaled an incorrect spelling and the kid walked off stage, the others stood and clapped to show their support.
“I think I’ve left part of my heart on this stage. I think I did that my first year here,” one said.
Several spellers asked for a sentence from Jacques Bailly, but only if it met a certain criteria.
“I know this one, but can you use it in a funny sentence please?” asked one speller during his first time on stage.
The funny sentences began as an experiment in 2009. Paige Kimble, executive director of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, said they kept the plan to themselves at first and didn’t even mention it to ESPN.
“Over time, kids have come to appreciate it and expect it,” Kimble said. She said they hired two professional comedy writers, whose names they wouldn’t disclose, to come up with the funny sentences that appeared more frequently in the later rounds of competition.
Bailly said it’s a way to cut the tension as a young speller stands on a national stage surrounded by beaming lights and clicking cameras.
“The sentence is probably the piece of information that has the least clear purpose,” Bailly said. “It’s the place where we can sort of have a little fun and relax a little bit.”
Hathwar and Sujoe will each get the $30,000 cash prize and their own engraved trophy.
“Each year was better than the last,” Hathwar said. “But now that I have the trophy, it’s the best.”