The 94th annual Scripps National Spelling Bee lasted nearly 20 rounds and culminated in an unprecedented spell-off that pitted the top two finalists in a showdown in which they attempted to correctly spell as many words as possible within 90 seconds.
In the end, the judges declared Harini Logan of Austin, Texas, the national spelling bee champion.
At a frantic pace, she correctly spelled 21 multisyllabic words while second-place winner Vikram Raju of Denver tallied 15 correct words before an audience of hundreds at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center at the National Harbor.
Hours earlier, Harini, who appeared in the national bee for the fourth time, lost the word-meaning round of the competition when judges said she chose the incorrect definition of the word pullulation. Much to Harini’s amazement, and others watching the event, the judges later reversed their decision and reinstated her.
Harini, admittedly shocked by the news, said she tried to remain calm while making her way through the rest of the competition. She described her winning strategy as a combination of keeping a cool head, blocking out the cameras and people and focusing on the ultimate goal.
“It was [about] taking time to step into that moment and thinking about the words,” Harini said. “Spelling is something that sticks with you for life. Once you get into this journey, there’s a dedication you develop along with a work ethic. There’s also an added skill of networking for the bee.”
This year’s national bee, which kicked off Tuesday, May 31, marked the first time since 2019 Scripps fully hosted an in-person competition. Out of 229 spellers, 106 reached their last year of eligibility. For nearly 50 spellers, this year’s competition counted as another attempt at the championship, while 23 spellers had siblings who participated in previous national spelling bees.
At the age of 15, Charlie Palmore, an 8th grader at St. Albans School in Northwest and winner of this year’s Washington Informer spelling bee, counted as the oldest contestant. The Informer sponsored him and Noemie Eva Jackson-Weaver, a 6th grader at New Hope Academy in Landover Hills, Maryland who won The Informer’s Prince George’s County Spelling Bee this year.
Earlier in the week, Levar Burton, this year’s spelling bee host, candidly spoke about his attempt to permanently host “Jeopardy!”. On Thursday night, audience members watched his pre-recorded interview with first lady Dr. Jill Biden. While he interviewed 2021 national spelling bee champion Zaila Avant-garde, Burton acknowledged his daughter, Mica Burton, who also conducted interviews during the evening.
After a short opening ceremony on Thursday, a dozen finalists took to the stage at the Gaylord before judges confirmed that Surya Kapu successfully appealed his elimination from the semifinals which took place one the previous day. Moments later, Surya correctly spelled schlager and joined his 12 peers in the competition.
For more than three hours, Surya and other youth took to the microphone to correctly spell and determine the meaning of words. By the 10th round, after many of the spellers failed to correctly define words given to them, Harini, Vikram, Vihaan Sibel and Saharsh Vuppula slugged it out for another round.
During the last hour of the competition, Harini and Vikram shared the stage in a battle that lasted nearly 10 more rounds before the spell-off. The audience watched intensely watched, at times sighing when their favorite speller incorrectly spelled a word. Other times, cheers and claps reverberated throughout the auditorium when Harini and Vikram spelled words of Greek, Latin and South Asian origin.
On the road to the finals, participants took the stage, and some left just as quickly as they came. Charlie was eliminated from the third round of the preliminaries when he misspelled “ariose.” Noemie faced a similar fate with the word “moreish.”
Despite his loss, Charlie maintained a positive attitude.
“I was really happy to represent my city and school,” he said. “There was a bit of nerves being on stage but it was cool to be around the best spellers in the country. The opening ceremony made me realize that I was here.”
Meanwhile, Zaila said watching the national spelling bee as an audience member helped her better understand the suspense and tension that pulsated throughout the Gaylord as contestants took to the stage and asked for the definition and origin of words before attempting to spell them correctly.
Since winning last year’s bee, Zaila, who aspires to play basketball professionally and work at NASA, has spent time with NASA scientists and rubbed shoulders with retired NBA center Shaquille O’Neal and other famous people. She also graced the cover of Sports Illustrated as the 2021 Sports Kid of the Year.
“My participation in the bee was a turning point [and] something that reinforced my need to dream bigger, reach higher and most importantly put in the work,” Zaila said Thursday. “I hope spellers take the lessons of the bee with them and the horizons set at competing at this level.”