The octo-champs

It was 12:05 a.m. when Rohan Raja spelled the last correct word of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. At that point, it had been more than an hour since anyone had spelled anything wrong.

The result was unprecedented in the history of the Bee, which for three years, from 2014 to 2016, had crowned co-champions: eight spellers had defeated the dictionary.


The confetti erupted after midnight. From the beginning of the round to the end of it, it took just 11 minutes for each of the eight spellers to successfully spell their winning words, to cheers and applause. 

For Rishik Gandhasri, speller 5, the winning word was "auslaut." Erin Howard, speller 93, spelled "erysipelas" correctly. Saketh Sundar, speller 132, won on "bougainvillea." And Shruthika Padhy, speller 307, won with "aiguillette."

Sohum Sukhatankar, speller 354, spelled "pendeloque" correctly. Abhijay Kodali, speller 407, spelled "palama" right. Christopher Serrao, speller 427, won with "cernuous." Rohan's winning word was "odylic." He was speller 462.


"I was last," Rohan said after it was all over. "I had to watch everybody get applause."

The spellers often say they're competing against the dictionary, not each other, but never has it been so apparent. Around 11:30 p.m. -- an hour after the competition was supposed to be off the air -- Dr. Bailly, the Bee's pronouncer, announced that anyone left after three more rounds of spelling would be declared a champion.

"Champion spellers, we are in uncharted territory," Dr. Bailly said. "We have plenty of words remaining on our list, but will soon run out of words that can possibly challenge you -- the most phenomenal assemblage of spellers in the history of this storied competition. We have thrown the dictionary at you, and so far, you've shown the dictionary who's boss."


The spellers rose to the challenge. There was not one misstep, and spellers high-fived each other as they got word after word correct.

"It was terrible," Erin said of waiting to spell her final word. "I really didn't want to be the one who didn't make it to champion."

Christopher said he just kept hoping he would get a word he knew.

"All of us were supporting each other," he said.


Offstage, spellers were rushed to the bathroom. They took pictures and changed into championship T-shirts. They pulled confetti out of their clothes and asked whether the Toronto Raptors had won.

And they talked about the words they didn't know. Yes, there were some.

As the passel of spellers made their way to a press conference, applause broke out around them.

"It's amazing," said Abhijay, who finished last year in third place. "It's beyond words. I'm speechless. … I was excited, pressured and worried."

Shruthika said she didn't think there was any way the words could have been tougher.

"Spellers improve," Sohum said. "The rate at which people are improving is amazing. Everyone learns; everyone gets so much better."


In the future, Rohan said, it's possible that there could be this many champions again. Rishik suggested that more vocabulary questions could be what sets the competitors apart.

"Vocabulary is a huge killer," he said.

While the RSVBee program has received some backlash, Sohum said he supported the program, which provides a path to the national Bee for spellers without sponsors, or those in competitive areas.

"I'm very grateful for RSVBee," he said, saying that Scripps was the reason all the spellers had found their passion.

"It's been a great experience for all of us," he said.

Now that it's over, what comes next? Ice cream for Shruthika, a phone for Rohan and a possible dog for Christopher are in the offing, all promised for the championship. Sohum will get a cat. For Abhijay?

"I need sleep," he said.

And Erin needs to relax, too.

"I'm going to hide in my room and never come out because this is a lot of talking to people, which is new to me," she said.


At the end of the night, the spellers were asked about what words were difficult for them. Saketh's answer: "Most of us knew all the words, cuz we're really pretty good."

Paige Kimble, the Bee's executive director, said she was "thrilled" with the historic evening.

"I'm so proud of these champion spellers and their prowess with the English language," she said.