The 88th Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee ended in a tie for the second year in a row, with two students crowned co-champions. Both 14-year-old Gokul Venkatacham, from Chesterfield, Mo. and 13-year-old Vanya Shivashankar are of South Asian descent and have competed in the national spelling bee previously – Venkatacham four times before and Shivashanker five times.
Emil Guillermo of NBC News reports that Gokul’s winning word was nunatak (a hill surrounded by glacial ice), and Vanya’s word was scherenschnitte (the decorative art of paper cutting).
“This is a dream come true; I can’t believe I’m up here,” Shivashanker said on the national TV cablecast on ESPN. “I’m dedicating this to my grandma because she passed away October 2013, and all she wanted was her grandkids to do so well.”
From Olathe, Kansas, Shivashanker’s older sister Kavya won in 2009 with the word laodicean. These sisters are the first siblings to win the national spelling bee.
This year was a continuation of the South Asian domination of the competition. Since 2008, young people of South Asian descent have won or shared the championship. Of the top ten spellers in the 2015 finals, seven were of South Asian descent. The fact that Venkatacham and Shivashankar had both already competed in the national bee was apparent as they spelled confidently and quickly.
Of the two, Shivashanker was slower, but more deliberate and never lost her confidence, even with words like bruxellois and hippocrepiform. The word thamakau, a type of Fijian canoe, did make her pause, but she completed the word correctly. The two spellers volleyed until there were no more words, at which time a tie was announced.
Almost 300 contestants competed for the over $37,000 in cash and prizes. Besides an engraved trophy each, Vanya and Gokul won their cash prizes, a $2,500 US savings bond, a complete reference library, and more, according to Ledyard King of USA Today.
11 million spellers participated in regional bees, ending with 283 young people ages 9 to 15 who began this year’s bee at the beginning of last week. During the two oral rounds on the first day of the competition, the spellers were faced with words like longiloquence, zamzumim, and Gesamtkunstwerk. A written test on the first day was also a part of the competition.
One of the crowd’s favorites was Dev Jaiswal of Mississippi, who was in first place going into the semifinals. The word that eliminated Dev was iridocyclitis (referring to an inflammation of the iris and ciliary body.)
“I’ve blown my own mind. I’ll be happy wherever I place tonight,” Dev, an eighth-grader at Winston Academy in Louisville, Missouri, said before the finals started. “It’s just a great honor to be here.”
Venkatachalam’s favorite word is sangfroid, meaning coolness under pressure, which describes his performance in the finals at the end of last week, which he called the “culmination of all the hard work I put in.” When asked how he stayed so cool during the competition, “Honestly, I have no clue.”
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Chuck Raasch reports that the Missouri spelling phenom was cool, calm, friendly, and upbeat during the competition.