Though the Scripps National Spelling Bee has crowned two co-champions on rare occasions — five times in the past 91 years, to be exact — the number of joint winners has never risen beyond that. However, history was made on May 31, 2019, when Rishik Gandhasri, Erin Howard, Saketh Sundar, Shruthika Padhy, Sohum Sukhatankar, Abhijay Kodali, Christopher Serrao, and Rojan Raja became the prestigious competition's first "octo-champions." In addition to the coveted title, the middle school students from five states — New Jersey, Texas, Alabama, Maryland and California — each took home an engraved trophy and a cash prize of $50,000.
The grueling two-day event began on Thursday, May 30, 2019, with a record 562 candidates, more than half of whom had qualified under the competition's RSVBee program. First introduced in 2018, the RSVBee allows students who are not outright champions, but have won their school bee or previously competed on the national stage, an opportunity to apply for a spot at the finals.
By Friday, the list had been whittled down to 50, and the organizers fully expected to eliminate all but the top 15 for the live showdown on ESPN before 2 pm (EST). However, stumping the well-prepared candidates proved to be harder than expected. With 25 competitors still standing at 3:30 pm (EST), Bee pronouncers began challenging contestants with difficult words such as palatschinken (a thin egg-batter pancake stuffed with jam) and yertchuk (an Australian eucalyptus tree ). Though it took another hour, by 4:30 pm (EST) the number of competitors had finally been reduced to a manageable 16.
Given the strong candidates, it was not surprising that the final, aired live on ESPN at 8:30 pm (EST), proved to be one of the most competitive in the Spelling Bee's 92-year history. It took over two hours and 15 rounds to eliminate just half of the 16 finalists. After the 16th round resulted in no eliminations, pronouncer Jacques Bailly and former Scripps Spelling Bee champion told the contestants, “Champion spellers, we are now in uncharted territory. 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. So far, you are showing this dictionary who is boss." He then informed the middle schoolers that if they each correctly spelled the next three words posed to them, all eight would be declared co-winners.
The chance of being named co-champions seemed to lift the spirits of the eight finalists who, despite the long day, calmly zipped through the next three rounds, correctly mouthing even curveballs like sphaeriid (sense organ found on the exterior of most sea urchins) and huanglongbing (a disease that prevents citrus fruit from ripening). At the end of the flawless, albeit dramatic, 20th round, the "octo-champions" jumped with joy at the sight of the customary confetti indicting a winner, or, in this case, winners, had been declared.
Though eight winners was certainly unexpected, Bee officials had suspected the evening would end with multiple champions and even prepared a contingency plan. “When we began to comprehend the mettle of our finalists, we began to think about what could possibly happen this evening,” Bee executive director Paige Kimble told the Associated Press. “We went into the evening with the plan that we executed on this evening.”
The Scripps National Spelling Bee, which annually attracts over 11 million students ranging in age from seven to 15, has become increasingly competitive in recent years. Serious contenders often hire dedicated spelling coaches and devote hundreds of hours preparing for the contest. To keep the competition challenging for the new generation of super-spellers, Scripps has been adding harder vocabulary each year. In 2016, after three consecutive years of a two-way tie, the organizers instituted a written spelling test requirement to decide the winner in case of a tiebreaker. Fortunately for the 2019 winners, the rule proved too cumbersome and was eliminated from this year's contest.
But given the eight-way tie, which cost the organizers $400,000 instead of the usual $50,000, future contestants are likely to encounter new rules to ensure multiple wins do not become a norm. While the Bee officials ponder over how to make the competition more challenging, the "octo-champions," who have gained instant celebrity status, are busy attending fun events, like baseball games, and reliving their magical night on television talk shows across the country.
Resources: theatlantic.com, theguardian.com,