In a dramatic, flawless final round, two eighth-graders proved to be joint winners at the 2015 Scripps National Spelling Bee. One a girl and one a boy, one from Kansas and one from Missouri, one a five-time finalist and one a four-timer, 13-year-old Vanya Shivashankar and 14-year-old Gokul Venkatachalam put both their hands on the trophy and thrust it into the air on Thursday evening—after spelling word after word that few people could even hope to pronounce correctly.
Shivashankar’s winning word was scherenschnitte, meaning the art of cutting paper into decorative designs. Venkatachalam’s was nunatak, a hill or mountain completely surrounded by glacial ice.
This is the second year in a row that the final has yielded co-champions. Last year was the first time in 52 years that two people had shared the trophy, and 2015 marks the first time in the bee’s 90-year history that there have ever been co-champions two years in a row. This is only the fifth tie ever.
How do two people win the bee? If three or fewer spellers are left when a round begins, the officials move to a 25-word “championship list.” As Scripps explained last year:
In the last minutes of the final, Shivashankar and Venkatachalam navigated—and sometimes breezed—through the championship words with poise, like tennis players returning near-impossible shots. And the announcers from ESPN, which broadcasts the competition held in National Harbor, Md., each year, espoused due color commentary.
Shivashankar started with bouquetiere.
“If they do want only one champion, the words are going to have to get tougher than that one was for Vanya,” the announcer scoffed.
Venkatachalam countered with caudillismo.
“It’s not the first time in this competition he’s proven he can handle a Spanish-derived word.”
She spelled thamakau, a word of Fijian origin that describes a large canoe.
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He spelled scytale, a message written in a method of cipher used especially by the Spartans.
“That’s how good these two are. For most spellers, that would be a nightmare,” the announcer explains. “That dictionary is no mystery to them.”
Tantieme. Cypseline. Urgrund. Filicite.
“I don’t know that either one of these is capable of not winning that trophy.”
Myrmotherine. Sprachgefuhl. Zimocca. Hippocrepiform.
Neither one betrayed much emotion as they cycled up to the microphone. The announcers explained that Venkatachalam was wearing a LeBron James jersey under his button-up. The audience learned that Shivshankar’s sister had previously won the bee. It was no wonder they kept so cool.
Nixtamal. Paroemiology. Scacchite. Pipsissewa. Bruxellois. Pyrrhuloxia.
At this point, there were only four words remaining. That meant that if both spelled their next words correctly, both would go home winners—because there would be just two words left, not enough for a winner to spell two correctly in succession.
After cycling through her questions about the origin, part of speech, definition and alternative pronunciations, Shivashankar nailed the byzantine mess of letters that is scherenschnitte. (She also won the Lifetime reality show Child Genius earlier this year, which was starting to look like an omen.)
Then Venkatachalam headed up to the microphone. The pronouncer said the word. The boy asked no questions and spelled nunatak like he was spelling his own name.
The ticker tape rained down on the stage and the spellers hugged each other. He held the left side and she held the right. “This is a dream come true. I can’t believe I’m up here,” Shivashankar said. But with nine bee appearances between them, it’s pretty easy to imagine that something this fitting would happen.
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