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This year, the National Spelling Bee's list of 25 hardest words wasn't hard enough

Confetti falls after Sriram Hathwar (R) of Painted Post, New York and Ansun Sujoe (L) of Fort Worth, Texas both won the 2014 Scripps National Spelling Bee competition May 29, 2014 in National Harbor, Maryland.
Confetti falls after Sriram Hathwar (R) of Painted Post, New York and Ansun Sujoe (L) of Fort Worth, Texas both won the 2014 Scripps National Spelling Bee competition May 29, 2014 in National Harbor, Maryland.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

On Thursday night, a curious thing happened at the cruel competition known as the Bee: two winners were crowned. This (almost) never happens. The Bee, as most of us know it, is a merciless, last-boy or girl-standing competition. It's been like that for 52 years.

But that wasn't the case this year. Here's a breakdown of what happened, the rules of the Bee, and why we have two victors.

Who won?

There were actually two winners last night. Sriram Hathwar, a five-time repeater at the Bee, and Ansun Sujoe, a two-time repeater, shared the trophy.  It's the first time in 52 years that co-winners have been crowned:


Ansun Sujoe spelling feuilleton correctly, and ensuring there were co-winners of the Bee this year. Via: ESPN

How can there be two winners? Isn't the Spelling Bee a winner-take-all format?

The official bylaws of the Bee state that when the Bee is down to two or three contestants, the judges will up the difficulty and open up a list of 25 championship-level words. When those 25 words are exhausted, co-winners are crowned. In addition to Thursday night, co-winners were crowned in 1950, 1957, and 1962

Usually, these words are pretty difficult and knock someone out. But that didn't happen last night as Ansun and Sriram were demolishing that list with relative ease— there was one round where both struck out, but both rebounded nicely.

There was also one more factor. In order to knock someone out of the Bee in the final rounds, a speller has to spell his or her word correctly, have their opponent miss a word, and then spell another word correctly. In short: you need at least three words to knock someone out. At the end of 22 rounds, there weren't enough words for Sriram or Ansun to knock each other out, and the competition was called; they didn't need to actually finish off the 25 words.

I heard there was a kid who yelled.

Oh yes. Jacob Williamson, an eighth grader, became the darling of the Bee. Williamson had a heart-on-his-sleeve style of spelling where he'd tell the audience whether he knew or didn't know a word.  In the 10th round of the Games, Williamson was presented with the word kabaragoya. He thought he knew it:



But, alas, Jacob spelled kabaragoya with a "c" instead of a "k." And he was shocked:



Were there any upsets? Spelling Bees have upsets, right?

Yes. The upset that rocked the spelling world was the ousting of 12-year-old Vanya Shivashankar. Vanya had placed fifth in 2013, and was considered by many to contend for the championship. She was cut during the computer testing portion of the competition.

Vanya wasn't the only casualty of the computer testing portion. Joseph Cusi Delamerced, the 12th-place finisher in 2013, was also sent packing. And Lucas Urbanski, one-half of the Urbanski spelling twins, and a 19th-place finisher in 2013, was also ousted.

Computer testing?

There are several parts of the competition which aren't televised. For people who were watching the semi-final rounds of the competition on ESPN2 Thursday afternoon, there were around 30 spellers left at the end of the broadcast. Then, they were cut down to 12 before primetime.

The cuts are the result of two day's worth of cumulative computer testing — spellers had to spell words like fizelyite and define words like pachydermatous — that factor into a speller's scores. The maximum amount of points a speller could get over these two days was 72, and the Bee allows a maximum of twelve spellers into the final rounds.  Here's how the final spellers stacked up based on their cumulative scores:

  1. Sriram Hathwar (70)
  2. Neha Konakalla (67)
  3. Mary Horton (66)
  4. Ansun Sujoe (64)
  5. Jacob Williamson (63)
  6. Alia Abiad (63)
  7. Tajaun Gibbison (63)
  8. Gokul Venkatachalam (63)
  9. Tejas Muthusamy (63)
  10. Ashwin Veeramani (62)
  11. Kate Miller (62)
  12. Samuel Pereles (62)

As you can see, Sriram was outscoring his peers and a definite favorite. Perhaps more interesting is that Gokul Venkatachalam and Ansun weren't at the top, even though they were the last two spellers, along with Sriram, left.

Who are the favorites for next year?

Many of the top performers this year were eighth graders, and are no longer eligible for the Bee. So, if you want to find next year's winners, you may have to start looking at this year's promising seventh graders.

Shivashankar is one of those. She is probably cracking the dictionary and plotting her comeback as I type. She's someone to keep an eye on.

Another speller in the hunt for the 2015 championship is Gokul Venkatachalam. Like Vanya, Gokul is a seventh grader, meaning he has one more year of eligibility. He placed third this year, and at times looked like the strongest speller in the bunch.

The darkhorse for 2015 would be Ankita Vadiala. She impressed many people during the semifinals, and had a charming presence on stage. This was her first national Bee. She likes spicy Indian vegetarian food and the song "Let It Go" from Frozen.

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