US spelling bee teenagers battle to draw

TWO contestants have been declared co-champions of the Scripps National Spelling Bee in the United States – for the first time in 52 years.

Cochampions Ansun Sujoe and Sriram Hathwar raise the championship trophy. Picture: AP
Cochampions Ansun Sujoe and Sriram Hathwar raise the championship trophy. Picture: AP

Indian-Americans Sriram Hathwar of New York and Ansun Sujoe of Texas shared the title after a final-round duel in which they nearly exhausted the 25 designated championship words. After they had spelled a dozen words correctly in a row, they both were named ­champions.

The past eight winners and 13 of the past 17 have been of Indian descent, a run that began in 1999 with Nupur Lala’s victory, which was later featured in the documentary, Spellbound.

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The first US national spelling bee took place in 1925, sponsored by a Kentucky newspaper.

However, the term has been in use since at least 1850, possibly becoming popular as a result of Webster’s spelling books which were a compulsory part of the US curriculum.

The first national winner was Frank Neuhauser, who claimed his place in history by spelling “gladiolus”, the flowering plant which he happened to grow.

During the contest in Maryland, Sriram, 14, opened the door to an upset by 13-year-old Ansun after he misspelled “corpsbruder,” a close comrade. But Ansun was unable to take the title because he got “antigropelos,” which means waterproof ­leggings, wrong.

Commentators have noted that over almost nine decades of the competition, the words have become noticeably harder, with early competitors winning on words like “knack”, “interning” and “promiscuous”.

By contrast, more recent winners have triumphed through navigating the syllables of “appoggiatura”, “pococurante” and “succedaneum”.

Sriram entered the final round as the favourite after finishing in third place last year. Ansun just missed the semi-finals last year.

They become the fourth co-champions in the bee’s 89-year history and the first since 1962.

“The competition was against the dictionary, not against each other,” Sriram said after both were showered with confetti onstage. “I’m happy to share this trophy with him.”

Sriram backed up his status as the favourite by rarely looking flustered on stage, nodding confidently as he outlasted ten other spellers to set up the one-on-one duel with Ansun.

The younger boy was more nervous and demonstrative, no more so than on the word that gave him a share of the title: “feuilleton,” the features section of a newspaper or magazine. “Ah, whatever!” Ansun said ­before beginning to spell the word as the stage lights turned red, signalling that he had 30 seconds left.

Although they hoisted a single trophy together onstage, each will get one to take home, and each gets the champion’s haul of more than $33,000 (£20,000) in cash and prizes.

Eleven million under-16s compete in the spelling bee, starting with school competitions and whittled down to less than 300 spellers for the final.