OXON HILL, Md. — When the confetti flew, the two boys stood in the center of the stage and shook hands. They held up the trophy together. Both were champions, a Spelling Bee finish unseen in more than half a century.
After all, it wouldn’t have seemed right for one of them to finish second. Sriram Hathwar and Ansun Sujoe had essentially used up the entire list of words the Bee had to offer. The one time Sriram misspelled, Ansun did too. Then they were spot on for their final 12 spellings combined, acing dark-corner-of-the-dictionary stuff like “thymelici,” ”encaenia,” ”skandhas,” ”sdrucciola” and “holluschick.”
Sriram had been a favorite to win. Ansun had come out of nowhere. When it was all done, 14-year-old Sriram from Painted Post, New York, and 13-year-old Ansun from Fort Worth, Texas, had each won $30,000 in cash as co-winners of the 87th Scripps National Spelling Bee.
“I think we both know that the competition is against the dictionary and not against each other,” Sriram said. “I’m happy to share this trophy with him.”
Not since 1962 had the Bee ended in a tie. It came about because the rules state that only 25 words remain once the competition is down to two or three spellers. Sriram thought he was a goner when he stumbled on “corpsbruder” (a close comrade), but Ansun then couldn’t handle “antigropelos” (waterproof leggings).
So they kept going, the spelling celebrity and the upstart, and the doomsday bell never sounded again.
Sriram was competing in the Bee for the fifth time and had finished third last year. He had received the full ESPN star treatment. Ansun, looking fashionable in a red bowtie, failed to get out of the preliminaries in his only previous appearance — and was one of Sriram’s fans.
“Definitely — I’d seen him in the finals,” Ansun said. “And I wanted to be like that.”
Turns out they’re exactly alike — at least in the final rankings.
“A veteran and, let’s say, a rookie,” Sriram said with a smile long after the confetti had settled. “It’s pretty cool.”
Sriram likes swimming, skating, playing basketball and the oboe and wants to be an ophthalmologist. (Both of his parents are doctors.) Ansun is a gifted musician and wants to be an engineer, like his father. Both are Indian-American, making it seven years in a row that a speller of Indian descent has taken home the trophy. The run began in 1999 with Nupur Lala, who was featured in the documentary “Spellbound.”
The Bee is always good for colorful moments as bright kids enjoy their turn in the spotlight. This week, a new word was coined — “spellfie” — as spellers, family and fans took photos of themselves in addition to the usual rush to collect each other’s autographs. The week began with the annual barbecue, when Sriram was inducted into an oddly-named group of spellers that hang out online.
“I’m happy to represent ‘The Order of the Squushy Carrots,’ I guess,” he said onstage after his victory.
Ansun isn’t a Squushy Carrot — at least not yet — but he and Sriram have something more important in common that helped them come out on top. Ansun’s mother said her son has a photographic memory. Sriram said he’s studied the dictionary so much that he has a “GPS system” in his brain and can recall the page where a word appears.
“It’s like flipping through the dictionary in my mind,” Sriram said.
Those abilities to visualize the letters paid off. Sriram’s final word was “stichomythia,” a theatrical term. Ansun, told he was spelling for a tie, then wrapped up the competition with “feulleton,” the features section of a European newspaper or magazine.
Then came the celebration. Among the biggest smiles was on the face of Bhageerathi Pathwar, Sriram’s grandmother, who made the trip from Bangalore just for the Bee.
“It was worth it,” she beamed.