Harini Logan won the Scripps National Spelling Bee on Thursday night, claiming victory in a blistering, first-of-its-kind spell-off that capped a marathon duel of one arcane term after another.
Harini, 14, an eighth grader from San Antonio, beat Vikram Raju, 12, a seventh grader from Denver, after she rattled off word after word in a 90-second speed round. Both students spelled so fast that the judges had to go to video to determine a winner: Harini spelled 21 words correctly, compared with 15 for Vikram.
It was a tense victory that came after she was briefly eliminated and then reinstated earlier in the finals, when the judges decided that a definition she had given for the word pullulation was acceptable.
Harini, who was making her fourth and final eligible appearance in the Bee, said winning felt “so surreal.”
“This is just such a dream,” she said, holding the trophy on national television.
Vikram stood nearby with his family, visibly trembling and his head bowed with the high emotions of the three-hour contest.
But when the Bee’s host, LeVar Burton, asked Vikram if he would return to the Bee next year, in what would be his own last eligible year, the boy, shaking but sounding resolute, gave a decisive “yes.”
It was the first time the Bee has used a spell-off since the national contest’s inception, in 1925, and it came after Harini and Vikram took turns spelling a series of words incorrectly, meaning a winner could not be crowned. To viewers, the pressure of the moment felt akin to penalty kicks in a high-stakes soccer tournament.
“Watching that spell-off, you got a real sense of the actual work of preparing for the Bee,” said Kory Stamper, a lexicographer and the author of “Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries.” The spellers, she said, had spent months with “rapid-fire spelling over the dinner table, during car pool, after school. You could really get a sense of the daily work. So impressive.”
Harini managed to spell more words than more than 200 other competitors at the national level, including 12 other finalists. Words in the final rounds included scyllarian, pyrrolidone, Otukian and Senijextee, reflecting how, over nearly a century of national spelling bees, the words have become increasingly esoteric.
But students have kept pace with terms out of botany, medicine, folk art and other specialist realms, so much so that, in 2019, eight students weretogether. In turn, contest organizers have created new rules in recent years, including a component to test word meaning and the spell-off, a potential “lightning” tiebreaker round.
Those rounds left only Harini and Vikram as the final two spellers on the stage, where 13 finalists had started off the night.
They dominated every round until tripping up in the very end, each missing half a dozen words between them.
“The fact that Harini and Vikram are misspelling these words is a testament to how tough these words are,” said Zaila Avant-garde, last year’s winner. Harini and Vikram “are the absolute best of the best,” she said.
made history as to win the National Spelling Bee.
This year’s contest was the first fully in-person bee since 2019, and the first in years not to be broadcast on ESPN.
“The Bee is back,” Mr. Burton proclaimed Thursday night, starting off the final round of a contest that after nearly 100 years remains a nerve-racking exhibition of intellectual vigor and stamina.
Scripps has had to evolve as spellers have become more adept and a cottage industry of personal coaches and computer spelling programs has helped contestants prepare much more effectively.
This year organizers brought back the word meaning round, which claimed five spellers, including Kirsten Santos, 11, of Texas, one of the youngest finalists and a speller competing at Scripps for the first time. It nearly knocked out Harini, as well.
“Harini getting out was horrible and unexpected,” said Zaila, who watched the finals live at the Bee and was in the so-called Losers’ Lounge with the eliminated spellers. “Everybody literally screamed when that bell rung.”
The judges reinstated Harini after concluding that she was not incorrect when she said that pullulation meant the nesting of mating birds. Scripps had said pullulation meant the swarming of bees. Merriam-Webster, the dictionary that Scripps relies on, says the definition of pullulate includes both “to breed or produce freely” and to “swarm, teem.”
Once she was back in the competition, Harini seemed unstoppable, confidently spelling words like charadriiform and tauromachian.
An avid reader who said she plans to write her first book when she is in high school, Harini had never been to the finals until this year, tying 31st in 2021, tying for 30th in 2019 and tying for 323rd in 2018.
She said she felt uneasy when she realized she and Vikram would be facing off in the lightning round.
“I just had to take a deep breath and tell myself to go out there and do my best,” she said. “Whatever happens, it happens.”
Alexandra E. Petri contributed reporting.