Karthik NemmaniÂ was declared champion of the 2018 Scripps National Spelling Bee on Thursday night, winning on the word â€œkoinoniaâ€Â and surviving what was arguably the most intense competition in the beeâ€™s 93-year history.
In doing so, the 14-year-old emerged the top speller from a record-shattering 515 contestants at the national bee, compared with 291 last year, after organizers expanded eligibility with a new wild-card program.
Along the way, he had to outlast a field of 16 finalists who vanquished words such as â€œPraxitelean,â€ â€œispaghulâ€ and â€œtelynâ€ â€” sometimes without batting an eyelash â€” in a breathtaking show of spelling skill broadcast live on ESPN.
But Nemmani, who was competing at his first national bee, displayed the poiseÂ of a veteran, seeming to sail through his words: â€œcondottiereâ€ (knight or roving soldier available for hire), â€œmiaroliticâ€ (of igneous rock), â€œcendreâ€ (a moderate blue), â€œankyloglossiaâ€ (limited normal movement of the tongue), â€œgrognard,â€ â€œpassus,â€ â€œshamirâ€ (tiny worm capable to splitting the hardest stone) and â€œjagÃ¼eyâ€ (an East Indian tree).
One of the numerous spellers
Often, Nemmani spelled with his arms clasped behind his back, barely betraying emotion. When it was down to two contestantsÂ â€” him and 12-year-old Naysa Modi, also from the Dallas area â€” Nemmani remained calm as Modi misspelled â€œBewusstseinslage.â€
Nemmani then knocked outÂ â€œhaecceitasâ€ (the status of being an individual) before receiving the word that would clinch his win: â€œkoinonia,â€ a word with Greek roots meaning a spiritual communion.
He nailed that one, too.
Only as confetti rained down on the stage did Nemmani break out into a broad smile.
â€œIâ€™m just really happy,â€ heÂ said moments after his victory. â€œThis has just been a dream come true.â€
Nemmani continued a longtime trend by becoming the 14th champion or co-champion of South Asian descent the bee has had in 11 consecutive years.
He almost wasnâ€™t at the national bee at all. Remarkably, Nemmani has never won a regional or state bee â€” and in fact lost to Modi at the Collin County Spelling Bee earlier this year. He qualified for nationals under the beeâ€™s new invitational program,Â â€œRSVBee,â€ which allowed those who didnâ€™t win a regional bee to still apply for the nationals if they had won their school bee or been a former national finalist.
Because of RSVBee, this year, more than 500 spellers qualified to compete at nationals.
The 16 spellers tookÂ the stage Thursday night at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in Maryland to battle it out for the title of champion.Â The competition was, in a word, brutal. In the first round of ESPN-televised spelling Thursday night, nearly half of the finalists misspelled their words, including several crowd favorites such as Tara Singh, a 13-year-old from Kentucky who was competing at her fifth and final national bee.
Naysa Modi, from Dallas, Texas,
To evenÂ get to that point, the finalists had to surviveÂ nearly five hours of onstage spelling that started Thursday morning. Bee officials said the plan had been to whittle down the field to about a dozen contestants for the prime-time competition. It would take five rounds of onstage spelling to get to 16, the largest group ever to head into theÂ championship finals.
The 16 finalists ranged in age from 11 to 14 and include nine girls and seven boys. The spellers come from all over the United States, plus one from Canada. And several hadÂ appeared at the national bee in previous years.
â€œI just try not to think about it,â€ said Modi, a sixth-graderÂ from Frisco, Tex., competing in her fourth national bee, when asked after the ThursdayÂ afternoon spellingÂ rounds about whether she might be a favorite to win. â€œThatâ€™s too much pressure.â€
TheÂ massive field of spellers began competingÂ in earnest Tuesday by taking a written test so difficult that there were no perfect scores this year.
Of note, however: All five spellers who scored the highest on the test were among the 16 finalists. That included Nemmani and Modi; 14-year-old Sravanth Malla of New York; 12-year-old Shruthika Padhy of New Jersey; and 12-year-oldÂ Aisha Randhawa of Riverside, Calif.
The expanded field also forcedÂ several logistical changes, such as an extra day of onstage spelling this week.
For hours on Tuesday and Wednesday, the spellers, who ranged in age from 8 to 14,Â tackled hundreds of mind-bending words, including â€œglossodyniaâ€ (a pain in the tongue), â€œstolonâ€ (a horizontal branch from the base of a plant that produces new plants from buds at its tip or nodes) and â€œtriturateâ€ (to crush or grind).
The additional day of spelling meant that Jacques Bailly, the beeâ€™s longtime pronouncer â€” who is treated with almost iconic reverence by the spellers â€” took breaks for the first time ever to preserve his voice, handing over the microphone to associate pronouncer Brian Sietsema for a couple of the preliminary rounds.
It was hard for him to pull back, Bailly said Wednesday.
â€œI would probably run myself into the ground doing this, because I just love doing it,â€ he said. â€œBut I recognize with three days that Iâ€™ve got to do some pacing, to make sure Iâ€™m really on my game and we have full attention for every speller on there.â€
On Wednesday night, bee officials used test scores to determine that 41 spellers would move on to the finals, to compete under the glaring lights of prime-time television. (Bee rules state that no more than 50 contestants can advance to the finals.) The new wild-card program paid off for a number of spellers: Of the 41 finalists, 16 had qualified through RSVBee, and four of those contestants moved on to the prime-time finals.
The winner of the bee receives $40,000 and a trophy from the Scripps Bee, a $2,500 cash prize (and a complete reference library) from Merriam-Webster, trips to New York and Hollywood as part of a media tour, and a pizza party for their school.