Spelling bee declares co-champs for second straight year

Students from every state, the District of Columbia, four U.S. territories and eight foreign nations arrived in the capital this week; young, talented and driven, each one intent on out-spelling the other.

And then there were just two.

And that’s how it ended Thursday night at the 88th Scripps National Spelling Bee, for the second consecutive year, when neither of the final two spellers made a misstep, outlasted the words, and both went home with the championship trophy.

After three days spent wrestling with tougher-than-tough words – “pyrrhuloxi” (a desert songbird) anyone? – Vanya Shivashankar, 13, of Olathe, Kan., and Gokul Venkatachalam, 14, of Chesterfield, Mo., beat out 283 students to walk away with $35,000 each in cash prizes and an honored place.

“I just put in the work throughout the entire year, without giving up,” Gokul said.

“It definitely takes hard work and passion,” said Vanya.

After many rounds of back-and-forth word wizardy (”Bruxellois,” a native of Brussels) Thursday night just between the pair of eighth graders, Vanya tackled “scherenschnitte,” the art of cutting paper into decorative designs, in the 20th round. She knew she’d nailed it, and finished things off with a smile before leaving the podium.

With only three words remaining, Jacques Bailly, the Bee’s official pronouncer, told Gokul that if he spelled his next word correctly, he and Vanya would be declared co-champs. That’s because even if one of them erred in round 21, there wouldn’t be enough words left for the other to correctly spell the required “two-in-a-row” to take home the trophy.

And when Gokul heard his word, he didn’t pause to ask the usual questions: “What’s the language of origin?” “What’s the part of speech?” “Is that the only pronunciation?”

Gokul didn’t hesitate. Calm and confident, he went for it.

“N-U-N-A-T-A-K,” he said with authority, spelling the word for a hill or mountain surrounded by glacier.

Confetti fell to broad applause. The trophy was theirs’ to share.

It was just like last year, after Sriram Hathwar, from New York, and Ansun Sujoe, from Texas, ran through the Bee’s word list to earn joint titles. Vanya and Gokul are now the fifth set of co-champions.

But Vanya’s win also marks the first time two siblings have won the top spelling title. Her older sister, Kavya, was the champion in 2009 and in the audience Thursday night to support her.

“This is a dream come true, I can't believe I'm up here,” Vanya said. “I've wanted this for such a long time.”

This was her fifth appearance at the national Bee and Gokul’s fourth.

But his cool demeanor on stage wasn’t the happy consequence of experience, he said: “Some people just have it naturally.”

Now, no more days spent with dictionaries and word lists for either of the winners. Gokul said he was looking forward to a family vacation to India and the NBA finals. He’s a longtime Cavaliers and LeBron James fan.

Vanya intends to rest and relax with her family.

But they weren’t alone in their dedication to their craft. They had nothing but praise for their competitors. Together, they started out in a group of 11 million students, each one hoping to be the last one left on that stage. It came down to them, and each won the right to be there.

“I’d say that everyone here is a champion,” Gokul said.