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National Spelling Bee ends in dead heat again

Published 27/05/2016

Nihar Janga, 11, and Jairam Hathwar, 13, were named co-champions in the 2016 National Spelling Bee (AP)
Nihar Janga, 11, and Jairam Hathwar, 13, were named co-champions in the 2016 National Spelling Bee (AP)

A celebrated spelling contest for youngsters in the United States has ended in a dead heat for the third year in a row.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee saw Jairam Hathwar and Nihar Janga declared co-champions after a roller-coaster finish.

Thirteen-year-old Jairam is the younger brother of the 2014 co-champion, Sriram Hathwar - while Nihar, aged 11, is the youngest winner of the bee on record.

"I'm just speechless. I can't say anything," Nihar said as he hoisted the trophy. "I mean, I'm only in fifth grade."

Organiser Scripps tried to make the contest more difficult this year after two consecutive ties - forcing the last two spellers to get through three times as many words as in years past.

Jairam, of Painted Post, New York, misspelled two words. But both times, Nihar, of Austin, Texas, followed up with a failure and the bee continued.

Sriram also got a word wrong during his contest, but his eventual co-champion, Ansun Sujoe, fluffed his chance at the solo title.

"I thought it was over, because Nihar is so strong, such a great speller," Sriram said.

Each will receive a trophy and 45,000 US dollars (£30,000) in cash and prizes.

Nihar celebrated by imitating the touchdown dance of his favourite athlete, Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant - who sent a tweet congratulating the young speller.

Jairam, meanwhile, took inspiration from golfer Jordan Spieth, particularly his ability to bounce back after bad shots.

"When I missed those two words, I didn't let them get to my head, and I just focused on the next word," Jairam said.

In another change, organisers did not stick to a predetermined list of "championship words" for the last two or three spellers.

No one will know whether the bee had harder words in reserve, but former spellers said Jairam and Nihar nailed the toughest words in recent memory.

They said because the best spellers have now become fluent in Latin and Greek roots, the bee went to words derived from trickier or more obscure languages - including Afrikaans, Danish, Irish Gaelic, Maori and Mayan.

Jairam's winning word was Feldenkrais, which is derived from a trademark and means a system of body movements intended to ease tension. Niram won with gesellschaft, which means a mechanistic type of social relationship.

Among the words they got right: Kjeldahl, Hohenzollern, juamave, groenedael, zindiq and euchologion.

At his best, Nihar wowed the crowd by shouting out definitions immediately after the words were announced. He looked unbeatable. But given two chances to hold the trophy by himself, he stumbled.

Nihar was in his first bee and would have had three more years of eligibility, but he cannot compete again since he won.

This was the 89th time the competition was held, and while Scripps' records from early years are incomplete, the youngest known champion was Wendy Guey - who won 20 years ago at age 12. The last to win the contest at his first attempt was Pratyush Buddiga in 2002.

Nihar said he did not feel pressure to become the youngest winner for two reasons. Firstly, he never expected to win and second, most of the crowd's attention was on an even younger speller: six-year-old Akash Vukoti.

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

Nihar and Jairam's parents are immigrants from south India, continuing a remarkable run of success for Indian-American spellers that began in 1999 with Nupur Lala's victory, which was later featured in the documentary Spellbound.

The competition has produced Indian-American champions for nine straight years and 14 out of the last 19.

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