On Thursday, the Scripps National Spelling Bee had its final showdown, with 12-year-old Ananya Vinay from Fresno, California, winning the championship title and $40,000 in cash and prizes.
Vinay, a sixth grader, competed against 14-year-old Rohan Rejeev from Edmond, Oklahoma. Both students spelled incredibly challenging words, from “heiligenschein” to “sceloporus,” over 21 of the allotted 25 championship rounds.
However, Rajeev spelled the Scandinavian-derived word “marram” incorrectly during his turn. Vinay spelled two words in a row correctly, with the word “marocain,” a dress fabric of ribbed crêpe, earning her first place.
Vinay’s parents and younger brother sprinted onto the stage to celebrate her victory, confetti falling around them.
Though Vinay was incredibly happy about her victory, she did not forget to be a good sport. She took time console Rohan, who was wiping tears from his eyes.
Rohan had competed for years in other bees and had been coached by another Oklahoman, Cole Shafer-Ray, who won third place in the bee two years ago. Because the bee only accepts spellers up to the eighth grade, this was Rohan’s first and only time in the national bee, making his loss even more heartbreaking.
“He’s unbelievable, probably a much better speller than I ever was,” said Cole. “He got so many incredible words right. I’m sure he’s not going to sleep that much tonight and he’s going to be disappointed in himself like I was, but ultimately he’s going to realize that he made everybody proud.”
The following day Vinay would have to give a speech during the bee’s closing ceremonies; nonetheless, she said it wouldn’t be a problem. She had already prepared a speech “in the last few weeks” to “motivate me to study more,” she told the Associated Press.
Vinay also was not worried about the difficulty of the words in the bee. “I knew them all,” she stated.
Vinay’s confidence could be seen throughout the bee, as she spelled word after word with little hesitation. Most of the time, she did not even take half of the allotted 2 minutes to spell each word given to her.
At times Vinay asked questions, such as “Part of speech?” and “Language of origin?” Nonetheless, the middle schooler did not seem to be challenged at all by the bee’s spelling list.
This year, the National Spelling Bee’s 90th anniversary, the contest featured its youngest speller: six-year-old Edith Fuller from Tulsa, Oklahoma. During the bee’s first round, she spelled the word “nyctinasty” correctly.
Fuller, along with 100 other spellers, was unable to make it to the final round. Nonetheless, she has big plans for the future, hoping to invent a new kind of refrigerator.
This year was also the first time since 2013 that a single person won the bee. For three straight years, the last two competitors tied in the final round. However, Scripps’ officials added a tiebreaker test to this year’s bee, allowing Vinay to take home the gold.
Leading up to the national bee, Vinay, the 13th consecutive Indian-American to win the bee and the 18th of the past 22 winners with Indian heritage, had participated in highly competitive national bees limited to Indian-Americans: the North South Foundation and the South Asian Spelling Bee. Though she did not win either of the bees, they, in addition to intense amounts of studying, helped her to perfect her spelling skills.
Last year Vinay performed well enough on the national bee’s written spelling and vocabulary test to make it to the top 50; however, she incorrectly spelled “multivalent,” a relatively easy word, on stage.
“She panicked. It was not a hard word,” said her father, Vinay Srekkumar. “I think she learned from that and she consciously worked on it, how you shouldn’t panic, just focus on the word.”
ESPN commentator and former speller Paul Loeffler also expected Vinay to make a big comeback after last year’s letdown.
“I knew how driven she was and determined to get here, and she’s obviously shown the mental capacity to pull this off,” said Loeffler.
Vinay will not be able to compete in future bees; nonetheless, she will return in a ceremonial role to help present the trophy to next year’s winner.