OXON HILL, Md. — The 2022 Scripps National Spelling Bee ended in a way none of the 93 competitions before it did.
The final two competitors, Vikram Raju and Harini Logan, failed to correctly spell two words in a row between Rounds 13 and 18. At that point, judges opted to institute the first spell-off – 90 seconds to spell as many words as possible correctly . The one with the most spelled correctly would win the Bee.
Logan – an eighth-grader from Texas – spelled 22 words correctly, compared to Raju’s 15, to become the 2022 champion. Officially, this year’s winning word was “moorhen” – a medium-sized bird defined as “the female of the red grouse.”
“Just so surreal, this is such a dream,” Logan, competing in her fourth national competition, said.
Logan, 14, nearly didn’t advance past the word meaning round on Thursday. She’d heard the tragic bell after her answer for “pullulation” was rejected.
“I was like ‘Wow, I’m out. This is it,'” Logan said.
However, the judges conferred during a break and ruled that the answer she gave could be correct, since it could mean “to breed” or “to swarm.”
Head judge Mary Brooks explained the ruling and Logan, who only minutes earlier had learned of her reversed fortunes, returned to her seat on the stage.
“There was a few minutes in between that were frantic,” the Montessori School of San Antonio student said.
Logan rolled through the rest of the spelling until her stalemate with Raju, which led to the spell-off.
It was like a round of Family Feud’s “Fast Money” met the Spelling Bee. The typical questions competitors may ask the pronouncer – part of speech, etymology and definition – were not permitted. Each word had to be attempted – no skips or passes – and the speller had to press a buzzer before the next word appeared.
“We activated the spell-off because it was the best chance to show the extent of these spellers’ preparation,” Bee executive director Dr. J. Michael Durnil said. “Clearly, they demonstrated their deep capacity for the competition.”
While Raju went first, Logan was sequestered in a room backstage with noise-canceling headphones that played classical music into her ears so she couldn’t hear his answers.
“At first I was a little uneasy and just decided to take it in stride,” Logan said of the spell-off. “We knew it was going to be a part of the competition, if it came down to it.”
Logan took home the $50,000 cash prize and Scripps Cup trophy on top of awards from Merriam-Webster and Encyclopedia Britannica.
“She is incredible. She is brilliant. She is poised,” said Grace Walters, a former speller and one of Logan’s coaches. “I’ve watched her encounter so many challenges in her journey and she tackles every one of them and moves forward with an exuberant smile.”
The first round of the finals Thursday – heavy on scientific and vegetation-related terms like “Pachytylus” – eliminated five of the 13 finalists.
To discourage the strict memorization of words and emphasize a holistic approach to language, the Bee began incorporating multiple-choice “word meaning” rounds last year. Competitors aren’t asked to spell; instead, they are given a word with three definitions and they must choose the correct one.
The lone word-meaning round on Thursday proved to be a litmus test, as it was for all of the 229 spellers who traveled to Maryland for the finals. Half of the remaining field bowed out.
One of those four was Kirsten Santos, a sixth-grader from Arizona who wore a jean jacket and bedazzled headband and was the second-youngest competitor to advance to the 2022 final.
“OK,” Santos calmly replied into the microphone.
The exercise nearly cost Logan a shot at the trophy. Instead, she advanced into the 10th round alongside Raju (second place, $30,000 prize), Vihaan Sibal (third place, $15,000 prize) and 13-year-old Saharsh Vuppala, who left off one “l” at the end of “phenocoll. ”
“I know there are words with ‘coll’ at the end,” he told host LeVar Burton backstage afterward, “and I was just debating if I should put the second ‘l’ in.”
One letter – in a word or among the multiple choice options – makes all the difference at the Spelling Bee.
Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.