UNITED STATES: ANALYSIS

National Spelling Bee ends in yet another tie with young Indian Americans again claiming glory

Winning words were Feldenkrais, a system of body movements intended to ease tension, and gesellschaft, a mechanistic type of social relationship.

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 May, 2016, 4:40pm
UPDATED : Friday, 27 May, 2016, 4:40pm

The words were tougher. The final rounds lasted longer. The result was the same. The Scripps National Spelling Bee ended in a tie for the third consecutive year on Thursday night, with Jairam Hathwar and Nihar Janga declared co-champions after a roller-coaster finish.

Thirteen-year-old Jairam is the younger brother of the 2014 co-champion, Sriram Hathwar. Nihar, at age 11, is the youngest winner of the bee on record.

I’m just speechless. I can’t say anything. I mean, I’m only in fifth grade!
Nihar Janga, co-champion

“I’m just speechless. I can’t say anything,” Nihar said as he hoisted the trophy. “I mean, I’m only in fifth grade!”

Scripps made the bee tougher after two consecutive ties, forcing the last two spellers to get through three times as many words as in years past.

Jairam, of Painted Post, New York, misspelled two words. But both times, Nihar, of Austin, Texas, followed up with a miss and the bee continued. Sriram also got a word wrong during his bee, but his eventual co-champion, Ansun Sujoe, flubbed his chance at the solo title.

“I thought it was over, because Nihar is so strong, such a great speller,” Sriram said.

Each will receive a trophy and US$45,000 in cash and prizes.

Nihar celebrated by imitating the touchdown dance of his favourite athlete, Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant, who sent a tweet congratulating the young speller. Jairam, meanwhile, took inspiration from golfer Jordan Spieth, particularly his ability to bounce back after bad shots.

“When I missed those two words, I didn’t let them get to my head, and I just focused on the next word,” Jairam said.

In another change, bee organisers didn’t stick to a predetermined list of “championship words” for the last two or three spellers. No one will know whether the bee had harder words in reserve, but former spellers said Jairam and Nihar nailed the toughest words in recent memory.

Because the best spellers become fluent in Latin and Greek roots, the bee went to words derived from trickier or more obscure languages, including Afrikaans, Danish, Irish Gaelic, Maori and Mayan.

When I missed those two words, I didn’t let them get to my head, and I just focused on the next word
Jairam Hathwar, co-champion

Jairam’s winning word was Feldenkrais, which is derived from a trademark and means a system of body movements intended to ease tension. Niram won with gesellschaft, which means a mechanistic type of social relationship.

Among the words they got right: Kjeldahl, Hohenzollern, juamave, groenedael, zindiq and euchologion.

Nihar and Jairam’s parents are immigrants from south India, continuing a remarkable run of success for Indian-American spellers that began in 1999 with Nupur Lala’s victory, which was later featured in the documentary Spellbound. The bee has produced Indian-American champions for nine straight years and 14 out of the last 19.

Nihar said he didn’t feel pressure to become the youngest winner for two reasons. First, he never expected to win. Second, most of the crowd’s attention was on an even younger speller: six-year-old Akash Vukoti.

“He did pretty good for a first-grader,” Nihar said. “He’s going to go places.”