Indian-origin word whizzes earn five top spots in iconic competition
By Geeta Goindi
National Harbor, Maryland, June 3, 2022 – In one of the most popular and riveting national contests, an Indian-American teen, Harini Logan, 14, of Texas, has been crowned champion of the 2022 Scripps National Spelling Bee.
While the competition Thursday evening was not without its suspense-ridden, nail-biting moments, even more than usual, it still marked a major triumph for the Indian diaspora — for over two decades, the Spelling Bee has been dominated by children of Indian origin and in the current edition they have secured the top five slots.
The winning word was ‘moorhen’ (the female of the red grouse) for Harini, an eighth grader at The Montessori School of San Antonio. She received a cash prize of $50,000 with the Bee’s engraved trophy and commemorative medal, $2,500 and a complete reference library from Merriam-Webster, and $400 of reference works from Encyclopedia Britannica, among other rewards.
Harini faced off with Vikram Raju, 12, of Denver, Colorado, in an unprecedented Spell-off deftly conducted by Dr. Jacques Bailly, a long-time official pronouncer at the Bee and a former champion (1980). Vikram, in seventh grade at Aurora Quest K-8, was awarded 30,000 dollars for finishing second in the prestigious competition’s first-of-a-kind lightning round.
After a somewhat stressful spate of spelling in which the two top finalists misspelled four words each, the spell-off was spell-binding to watch and proved why Harini and Vikram so deserved to be on stage for the finale.
“We activated the spell-off because it was the best chance to show the extent of these spellers’ preparation”, said Dr. J. Michael Durnil, executive director of the Spelling Bee. “Clearly, they demonstrated their deep capacity for the competition”.
The two contestants each got 90 seconds to spell as many words as they could from a predetermined list which was the same for both spellers who took turns in being sequestered.
Harini, who reportedly draws inspiration from Vice President Kamala Harris, also of Indian descent, clinched the championship by correctly spelling 22 out of 26 words attempted. “This is such a dream. I think honestly so surreal”, she gushed upon clutching the championship trophy presented by Adam Symson, president and CEO of the E.W. Scripps Company.
About the tense spell-off, she said, “I just decided to take it in stride. Whatever happens, it happens”, she added matter-of-factly.
For Harini, it was her fourth time participating in the Spelling Bee guided by coach Grace Walters who has worked with a number of prior champs. Harini placed 31st in 2021, 30th in 2019, and 323rd in 2018, So, it’s been quite a journey for this experienced speller whose love for reading led her to compete in spelling bees.
“Harini displayed impressive focus and determination throughout the competition all the way up to her thrilling win”, Symson said. “It’s exactly why the Scripps National Spelling Bee is a piece of American culture beloved by millions around the world. We get to know these spellers and their stories, and we love rooting them along with each turn at the microphone”.
Harini was warmly commended for her big win on microblogging site Twitter. “Congratulations, Harini! You did it!”, wrote First Lady Dr. Jill Biden who takes great pride in being an educator.
US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, an Indian-American trailblazer himself, tweeted, “Congratulations Harini! We are so proud of you!”.
Republican senator John Cornyn of Texas marveled, “Spelling 22 words right in only 90 seconds is an incredible feat. Way to go, Harini”, he wrote on Twitter.
San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg pointed out, “Harini is the first San Antonio student to advance to the final round in the history of @ScrippsBee. Way to represent our city!”, he said.
Interestingly, Harini was reinstated in the competition after judges decided that her answer to the meaning of ‘pullulation’ in the vocabulary round could be considered correct. So, she was back on stage with the three remaining contestants.
Among the words she spelled correctly in the championship rounds were ‘tyrolienne’, ‘ditalini’, ‘tauromachian’, and ‘charadriiform’.
Vikram correctly spelled 15 of 19 words in the spell-off which put him in second place. He still has one more chance at winning the Scripps Cup which he plans to avail of. In the spelling rounds, he aced words like ‘dasypodid’, ‘coracidium’, ‘opisometer’, and ‘congener’.
In third place was Vihaan Sibal, 13, of Texas awarded $15,000, followed by Saharsh Vuppala, 13, of Washington in fourth place who earned $10,000, and Surya Kapu, 13, of Utah in fifth position who received $5,000.
The current edition of the Spelling Bee, held for the first time in-person at the Gaylord National Hotel and Convention Center in National Harbor since the Covid-19 pandemic, began Tuesday with 229 spellers. By Wednesday evening, this number had dwindled to 12 finalists of which 10 were Indian-American kids. Following an appeal, Surya was reinstated into the field Thursday evening, upping the number of finalists to 13. Surya was able to convince the judges that he was denied relevant root information about a word and deserved another chance.
The 13 finalists were: Sahasrad Sathish, 13, of Illinois; Ekansh Rastogi, 13, of Florida; Abhilash Patel, 14, of New York; Sahana Srikanth, 13, of Ohio; Nitya Kathiravan, 13, of New Jersey; Shijay Sivakumar, 14, of Texas; Aliyah Alpert, 11, of Arizona; Kirsten Santos, 11, of Texas; and the five top winners.
“Congratulations to Harini and to all of the national competitors this year”, Symson said. Scripps is proud to tell your stories”.