The 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee was brought to its knees Thursday night into early Friday by eight spellers who were too poised, too prepared and too savvy for any word thrown their way. Faced with a dwindling word list and a group of spellers who showed no weakness, Scripps gave up and declared them co-champions, the most extraordinary ending in the 94-year history of the competition.
The eight co-champions spelt the final 47 words correctly in their historic walk-off victory, going through five consecutive perfect rounds. The competition had 20 rounds in all.
“Champion spellers, we are now in uncharted territory,” bee pronouncer Jacques Bailly told them in announcing the decision to allow up to eight winners. “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.”
He wasn’t lying. The bee held three more rounds after that, and no one missed a word or even appeared to struggle.
Earlier, he said, “We’re throwing the dictionary at you, and, so far, you are showing the dictionary who’s boss,” the Reuters news agency noted.
The winners, six boys and two girls from Alabama, California, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Texas, ranged in age from 12 to 14 and dubbed themselves “octo-champs.” The winners were:
- Rishik Gandhasri
- Erin Howard
- Saketh Sundar
- Shruthika Padhy
- Sohum Sukhatankar
- Abhijay Kodali
- Christopher Serrao
- Rohan Raja.
Although the bee had decided to split the first- and second-place money in the event of a tie, those plans were quickly scuttled and each speller was given the full $50,000 cash prize. The three-day event began with 562 contestants from the U.S., U.S. territories and six other nations, the Reuters said.
From 2014-2016, the bee ended with co-champions. In 2017 and last year, the bee had a written tiebreaker test of spelling and vocabulary that would be used to identify a single champion if necessary. It didn’t turn out to be needed, and bee officials decided the test was too burdensome and got rid of it.
The warning signs of a logjam at the top came earlier Thursday, when the early final rounds, designed to narrow the field from 50 spellers to about a dozen, took five-and-a-half hours and still brought a robust group of 16 kids to the finals.
The bee’s rules called for no more than three spellers to share the title. The possibility of four or more winners wasn’t considered before Thursday. Paige Kimble, the bee’s executive director, said bee officials developed a contingency plan for multiple champions after gauging the spellers’ performance in the earlier final rounds.