Jose Luis Magana/AP
OXON HILL, Md. — Harini Logan kept trying to learn from her near misses in online spelling bees. Recognized for years as one of the best spellers in the English language, it had never won a national title.
In the biggest bee of them all, she endured another round of setbacks, but somehow, in the end, she was still there.
Harini was eliminated, then reinstated, in the highly controversial Scripps National Spelling Bee multiple-choice vocabulary round. She misspelled four times as Scripps’ most difficult words proved too much for her and Vikram Raju, who also misspelled four times down the stretch. And then she finally defeated Vikram in the bee’s first-ever whirlwind tiebreaker on Thursday night.
Call his spelling version “The Revenant”.
“Harini went to hell and came back with her spelling experiences,” her longtime trainer Grace Walters said.
The 14-year-old eighth grader from San Antonio, Texas, who last participated in the fully in-person bee three years ago and endured the pandemic to return, spelled 21 words correctly during the time of 90 seconds, beating Vikram by six. The winning word, according to Scripps, was “water hen,” which means female black grouse, because it was the one who moved her ahead of Vikram.
For the past two months, the ever-prepared Harini had been training for the possibility of a lightning round, a format she found uncomfortable.
“When it was introduced last year, I was a bit terrified, to be honest,” Harini said. “I’m going slow. It’s my thing. I didn’t know how I would fare in this context.”
Harini, a crowd favorite for her poise and positivity, wins over $50,000 in cash and prizes. She is the first-ever Scripps champion to be reinstated while competing. And that was before his four late stumbles.
“I think it would have been very easy for me to be deterred, to be like, ‘Wow, why do I miss him so much?'” Harini said. “Really just focusing on the next word and knowing I’m still here, I think that was just a big relief for me.”
She is the fifth Scripps champion to be coached by Walters, a former Speller, fellow Texan, and student at Rice University who is considering retirement from coaching. Harini also got help from Navneeth Murali, who presented him with one of those 2020 SpellPundit Online Bee finalists — a consolation prize for the Scripps bee that was canceled due to the pandemic.
It was Walters and Navneeth who rushed to the bee judges, along with Harini’s mother, Priya, as soon as Harini left the stage during the vocabulary round, seemingly her most crushing disappointment of all.
“My heart stopped for a second,” Harini said.
Harini defined the word “pullulation” as the nesting of mating birds. Scripps said the correct answer was swarming bees. Her supporters argued with the judges that she got it right. Minutes later, Chief Justice Mary Brooks announced the cancellation.
“We did some research after you were done, which is our job, to make sure we made the right decision,” Brooks said. “We (did) dove a little deeper into that word and in fact the answer you gave to that word is considered correct, so we’ll reinstate you.”
From there, Harini made it to the finals against Vikram. They each spelled two words correctly. Next, Scripps released the harshest words of the night.
Both misspelled. Then Vikram missed again and Harini landed “sereh”, putting her one word away from the title. The word was “drimys”, and she got it wrong.
Two more rounds, two more misspelled words by each, and Scripps brought out the podium and the buzzer for the whirlwind round that all of the finalists had practiced for in the nearly empty ballroom hours earlier.
Harini was faster and sharper throughout the race, and the judges’ final tally confirmed her victory.
“I knew I just had to blurt out whatever spelling I could think of off the top of my head, and I just had to be a little faster,” said Vikram, a 12-year-old seventh grader from Aurora, Colorado, who hopes to return next year.
Vihaan Sibal, a 13-year-old from McGregor, Texas, finished third and also has another year of eligibility. Saharsh Vuppala, a 13-year-old eighth-grader from Bellevue, Wash., finished fourth.
The last all-in-person version of the bee had no tiebreaker and ended in an eight-way tie. The Bee returned last year in a mostly virtual format, with just 11 finalists meeting in Florida as Zaila Vanguard became the first black American champion.
Harini is Indian-American, picking up on a trend that has persisted for two decades – 21 of the last 23 champions have South Asian heritage.
Another change to this year’s bee: Scripps ended its deal with longtime partner ESPN and produced its own TV show for its ION and Bounce networks, featuring actor and literacy advocate LeVar Burton as host. The transition was bumpy at times, with long and uneven commercial breaks that interrupted the action and audio glitches that exposed the inner workings of the show to the in-person crowd.
The Bee itself was leaner, with less than half the attendees it had in 2019 due to dropping sponsors and eliminating a wild card program. And the addition of live vocabulary questions during semi-finals and finals resulted in some surprising eliminations.
Harini bowing over a vocabulary word was briefly the biggest shock of all.
“In the end, it was worth it,” Walters said. “Every second place. Every ding. Every tear. All of it. This is the ending Harini deserves.”