For the first time in 52 years, the Scripps National Spelling Bee ended in a tie. Sriram Hathwar, a 14-year-old from New York in his fifth National Spelling Bee, correctly spelled “stichomythia,” and Ansun Sujoe, a 13-year-old from Texas in his second Bee, nailed “feuilleton” to clinch the tie. Each boy won $30,000 and seemed happy to share the winner’s title.
The three-day competition for elementary and middle-school students ended on Thursday. According to the rules, the final two or three competitors spell from a list of 25 words. Once they exhaust those, the competition ends.
Like 12 of the last 16 champions, both Hathwar and Sujoe are of Indian descent. Their biographies are similar: Both play more than one instrument and enjoy chess. In fact, their success, like that of many previous winners, comes from an ability to perceive patterns.
The National Spelling Bee website lists math as most competitors’ favorite subject. Hathwar attends an alternative school for math and science, and Sujoe says he enjoys solving difficult math problems and programming robots.
Brian Reinhart competed for the second time this year and said math and spelling have many similarities. “A lot of these competitors use roots—Greek roots, Latin roots, German roots, Scandinavian roots, whatever they might be—to figure out how to spell a word,” he said. “That’s really just finding patterns. And that’s all that math is.”
Arvind Mahankali, the 2013 champion, described spelling as solving a different kind of word problem.
“For many of the words, they’re like puzzles, so you solve those puzzles using clues that they give you, which are the definition, the language of origin, part of speech, and pronunciation,” Mahankali told The Wall Street Journal.
According to the statistics on the National Spelling Bee website, 138 of the 281 competitors speak more than one language, and knowing the foreign derivations of English words helps competitors memorize the spellings. Mahankali said words with German roots knocked him out of several competitions, so his dad made a list of those words for him to study. He won the 2013 championship on a word of German origin: “knaidel.”
Hathwar followed a similar study tactic. “The English language is pretty brutal,” he told CNN. “It borrows so many words from different languages. … So it was really just a competition against the dictionary.”