National Spelling Bee ends in a tie, but grace was the real winner

Nihar Janga shares the trophy with Jairam Hathwar to become the youngest winner in the nationally beloved bee's history.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Nihar Janga, 11, of Austin, Texas, (r.) talks with Jairam Hathwar, 13, of Painted Post, N.Y., after another round where the two went head to head in a drawn out battle that ended in them being named co-champions in the 2016 National Spelling Bee, in National Harbor, Md., on Thursday.

Scripps Spelling Bee officials changed the rules this year – they were hoping to prevent a tie for the third year in a row, but it wasn't to be.

Despite the intense competition and tens of thousands in prize money up for grabs in the 89th year of the nationally beloved competition, child-like grace was the real winner on the night.

The eventual co-champions shared no animosity, only high-fives and a hug.

Eleven year-old Nihar Janga of Austin, Texas, looked to be the standout speller in the final rounds, confidently reciting the definitions of his words as they were called.

But Nihar stumbled. After correctly defining the word "Biniou" to bee pronouncer Jacques Bailly as a "Breton bagpipe," he misspelled opening the door for his eventual co-champion, 13-year-old Jairam Hathwar of Painted Post, N.Y., whose older brother Sriram had also been the 2014 co-champion.

Jairam effectively gifted Nihar opportunities to seal the win by missing two words in the final rounds, but both times Nihar was unable to capitalize. Both spelled their final two words correctly, making them the competition's thirds set of co-champions in a row. They are the seventh pair of co-champions in the history of the bee.

While bee organizers had said ahead of the competition that they would be fine with another tie, they changed the rules of the championship round to make it less likely. Instead of a pre-determined list of 25 "championship words" for the final three spellers, the competition instead forced the top three to go through up to 25 rounds. And the difficulty of the words could be adjusted as necessary.

The fact that both winners received the first-place $45,000 worth of cash and prizes may have helped quell any potential bitterness at having to share the title, but Nihar and Jairam's friendship was on display throughout the night.

They chatted as others spelled, high-fived after their turns, and embraced after they won. Nihar's misses in the crucial final rounds appeared uncanny, but he denied having misspelled on purpose. He said he just didn't know the words.

"I wanted to win, but at the same time, I felt really bad for Jairam," he said.

Both boys said they were inspired by their favorite athletes, and Nihar celebrated his win by crossing his arms like Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant's touchdown celebrations. Mr. Bryant later congratulated him over Twitter.

Jairam was motivated by his favorite player, golfer Jordan Spieth.

"When he hits a bad shot, he always bounces back, on the next shot or the next hole," Jairam said. "When I missed those two words, I didn't let them get to my head, and I just focused on the next word."

Both boys' families immigrated to the United States from southern India. Indian-American spellers have won the spelling bee for nine straight years, and 14 out of the last 18.

Third-place Snehaa Kumar of Folsom, Calif., exited in the first championship round. Nihar and Jairam had to spell 24 words each before sharing the trophy.

Records of early Scripps bees are incomplete, but at 11, Nihar appears to be the youngest ever winner. Records show Wendy Guey, who won 20 years ago at age 12, to be the previous youngest.

The crowd's heart was also warmed by a far younger speller: 6-year-old Akash Vukoti. Even Nihar was impressed.

"He did pretty good for a first-grader," Nihar said. "He's going to go places."

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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