Most extraordinary ending in the 94-year history of the National Spelling Bee

OXON HILL, Md. (AP) — The Scripps National Spelling Bee was broken Thursday night, brought to its knees by eight spellers who were too poised, too prepared and too savvy for any word thrown their way.

Faced with a dwindling word list and a group of spellers that showed no weakness, Scripps gave up and declared them co-champions, the most extraordinary ending in the 94-year history of the competition.

The eight co-champions spelled the final 47 words correctly in their historic walk-off victory, going through five consecutive perfect rounds.

"Champion spellers, we are now in uncharted territory," bee pronouncer Jacques Bailly told them in announcing the decision to allow up to eight winners. "We do have plenty of words remaining on our list. But we will soon run out of words that will possibly challenge you, the most phenomenal collection of super spellers in the history of this competition."

He wasn't lying. The bee held three more rounds after that, and no one missed a word or even appeared to struggle.

The winners, who dubbed themselves "octo-champs," were: Rishik Gandhasri, Erin Howard, Saketh Sundar, Shruthika Padhy, Sohum Sukhatankar, Abhijay Kodali, Christopher Serrao and Rohan Raja.

Although the bee had decided to split the first- and second-place money in the event of a tie, those plans were quickly scuttled and each speller was given the full $50,000 cash prize.

From 2014-2016, the bee ended with co-champions. In 2017 and last year, the bee had a written tiebreaker test of spelling and vocabulary that would be used to identify a single champion if necessary. It didn't turn out to be needed, and bee officials decided the test was too burdensome and got rid of it.

The warning signs of a logjam at the top came earlier Thursday, when the early final rounds, designed to narrow the field from 50 spellers to about a dozen, took 5½ hours and still brought a robust group of 16 kids to the finals.

36 PHOTOS
2019 National Spelling Bee
See Gallery
2019 National Spelling Bee
Eight co-champions celebrate after winning the Scripps National Spelling Bee, Friday, May 31, 2019, in Oxon Hill, Md. The spelling bee ended in unprecedented 8-way championship tie after organizers ran out of challenging words. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Co-champions of the 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee, from left, Shruthika Padhy, 13, of Cherry Hill, N.J., Erin Howard, 14, of Huntsville, Ala., Rishik Gandhasri, 13, of San Jose, Calif., Christopher Serrao, 13, of Whitehouse Station, N.J., Saketh Sundar, 13, of Clarksville, Md., Sohum Sukhatankar, 13, of Dallas, Texas, Rohan Raja, 13, of Irving, Texas, and Abhijay Kodali, 12, of Flower Mound, Texas, hold the trophy in Oxon Hill, Md., Friday, May 31, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Rohan Raja, 13, of Irving, Texas, celebrates after becoming one of eight co-champions in the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, Friday, May 31, 2019, in Oxon Hill, Md. The spelling bee ended in unprecedented 8-way championship tie after organizers ran out of challenging words. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
The eight co-champions of the 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee, from left, Shruthika Padhy, 13, of Cherry Hill, N.J., Erin Howard, 14, of Huntsville, Ala., Rishik Gandhasri, 13, of San Jose, Calif., Christopher Serrao, 13, of Whitehouse Station, N.J., Saketh Sundar, 13, of Clarksville, Md., Sohum Sukhatankar, 13, of Dallas, Texas, Rohan Raja, 13, of Irving, Texas, and Abhijay Kodali, 12, of Flower Mound, Texas, hold the trophy at the end of the competition in Oxon Hill, Md., Friday, May 31, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
E.W. Scripps Company CEO Adam Symson, right, joins Sohum Sukhatankar (354), 13, of Dallas; Rishik Gandhasri (5), 13, of San Jose, Calif.; Shruthika Padhy (307), 13, of Cherry Hill, N.J., and the other winning spellers to hold the trophy at the end of the 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee in Oxon Hill, Md., early Friday, May 31, 2019. The bee ended in an unprecedented 8-way championship tie after organizers ran out of challenging words. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Abhijay Kodali (407), 12, of Flower Mound, Texas; Sohum Sukhatankar (354), 13, of Dallas; Rishik Gandhasri (5), 13, of San Jose, Calif.; Shruthika Padhy, 13, of Cherry Hill, N.J., and the other winning spellers gather together at the end of the 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee in Oxon Hill, Md., early Friday, May 31, 2019. The bee ended in an unprecedented 8-way championship tie after organizers ran out of challenging words. E.W. Scripps Company Chief Executive Officer Adam Symson, right, helps present the trophy. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Eight co-champions carry a trophy after winning the 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee, early Friday, May 31, 2019, in Oxon Hill, Md. Each will get the full winner's prize of $50,000 in cash. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
E.W. Scripps CEO Adam Symson carries a trophy for eight co-champions of the Scripps National Spelling Bee as confetti falls, early Friday, May 31, 2019, in Oxon Hill, Md. The spelling bee ended in unprecedented 8-way championship tie after organizers ran out of challenging words. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Rohan Raja, 13, of Irving, Texas, who was the last speller of group, is cheered by his competitors at the end of the 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee in Oxon Hill, Md., Friday, May 31, 2019. The spelling bee ended in unprecedented 8-way championship tie after organizers ran out of challenging words.(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Shruthika Padhy, 13, of Cherry Hill, N.J., reacts after realizing she is one of eight co-champions of the 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee in Oxon Hill, Md., Friday, May 31, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Abhijay Kodali, 12, of Flower Mound, Texas, reacts after learning that he is one of eight co-champions of the 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee in Oxon Hill, Md., Friday, May 31, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
The eight co-champions of the 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee, from left, Shruthika Padhy, 13, of Cherry Hill, N.J., Erin Howard, 14, of Huntsville, Ala., Rishik Gandhasri, 13, of San Jose, Calif., Christopher Serrao, 13, of Whitehouse Station, N.J., Saketh Sundar, 13, of Clarksville, Md., Sohum Sukhatankar, 13, of Dallas, Texas, Rohan Raja, 13, of Irving, Texas, and Abhijay Kodali, 12, of Flower Mound, Texas, hold the trophy in Oxon Hill, Md., Friday, May 31, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
The co-champions of the 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee, from left, Sohum Sukhatankar, 13, of Dallas, Texas, Abhijay Kodali, 12, of Flower Mound, Texas, Rohan Raja, 13, of Irving, Texas, Saketh Sundar, 13, of Clarksville, Md., Christopher Serrao, 13, of Whitehouse Station, N.J., Rishik Gandhasri, 13, of San Jose, Calif., Erin Howard, 14, of Huntsville, Ala., and Shruthika Padhy, 13, of Cherry Hill, N.J., celebrate in Oxon Hill, Md., Friday, May 31, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Co-champions of the 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee, from left, Abhijay Kodali, 12, of Flower Mound, Texas, Sohum Sukhatankar, 13, of Dallas, Texas, Saketh Sundar, 13, of Clarksville, Md., Rishik Gandhasri, 13, of San Jose, Calif., Shruthika Padhy, 13, of Cherry Hill, N.J., Christopher Serrao, 13, of Whitehouse Station, N.J., Erin Howard, 14, of Huntsville, Ala., and Rohan Raja, 13, of Irving, Texas, hold the trophy at the end of the competition in Oxon Hill, Md., Friday, May 31, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
The eight co-champions of the 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee, from left, Shruthika Padhy, 13, of Cherry Hill, N.J., Erin Howard, 14, of Huntsville, Ala., Rishik Gandhasri, 13, of San Jose, Calif., Christopher Serrao, 13, of Whitehouse Station, N.J., Saketh Sundar, 13, of Clarksville, Md., Sohum Sukhatankar, 13, of Dallas, Texas, Abhijay Kodali, 12, of Flower Mound, Texas, and Rohan Raja, 13, of Irving, Texas, hold the trophy in Oxon Hill, Md., Friday, May 31, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
The co-champions of the 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee, from left, Sohum Sukhatankar, 13, of Dallas, Texas, Abhijay Kodali, 12, of Flower Mound, Texas, Rohan Raja, 13, of Irving, Texas, Saketh Sundar, 13, of Clarksville, Md., Christopher Serrao, 13, of Whitehouse Station, N.J., Rishik Gandhasri, 13, of San Jose, Calif., Erin Howard, 14, of Huntsville, Ala., and Shruthika Padhy, 13, of Cherry Hill, N.J., celebrate their win in Oxon Hill, Md., Friday, May 31, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Shruthika Padhy, 13, of Cherry Hill, N.J., reacts after becoming one of eight co-champions in the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, Friday, May 31, 2019, in Oxon Hill, Md. The spelling bee ended in unprecedented 8-way championship tie after organizers ran out of challenging words. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
The eight co-champions of the 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee, from left, Sohum Sukhatankar, 13, of Dallas, Texas, Abhijay Kodali, 12, of Flower Mound, Texas, Rohan Raja, 13, of Irving, Texas, Saketh Sundar, 13, of Clarksville, Md., Christopher Serrao, 13, of Whitehouse Station, N.J., Rishik Gandhasri, 13, of San Jose, Calif., Erin Howard, 14, of Huntsville, Ala., and Shruthika Padhy, 13, of Cherry Hill, N.J., celebrate their win in Oxon Hill, Md., Friday, May 31, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Abhijay Kodali, 12, of Flower Mound, Texas, celebrates after becoming one of eight co-champions in the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, Friday, May 31, 2019, in Oxon Hill, Md. The spelling bee ended in unprecedented 8-way championship tie after organizers ran out of challenging words. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Sohum Sukhatankar, 13, of Dallas, Texas, celebrates after becoming one of eight co-champions in the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, Friday, May 31, 2019, in Oxon Hill, Md. The spelling bee ended in unprecedented 8-way championship tie after organizers ran out of challenging words. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Christopher Serrao, 13, of Whitehouse Station, N.J., celebrates after becoming one of eight co-champions in the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, Friday, May 31, 2019, in Oxon Hill, Md. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Eight co-champions celebrate after winning the Scripps National Spelling Bee, Friday, May 31, 2019, in Oxon Hill, Md. The spelling bee ended in unprecedented 8-way championship tie after organizers ran out of challenging words. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
The eight co-champions celebrate after winning the Scripps National Spelling Bee, Friday, May 31, 2019, in Oxon Hill, Md. The spelling bee ended in unprecedented 8-way championship tie after organizers ran out of challenging words. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
E.W. Scripps CEO Adam Symson, right, presents a trophy to the eight co-champions of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, Friday, May 31, 2019, in Oxon Hill, Md. The spelling bee ended in unprecedented 8-way championship tie after organizers ran out of challenging words. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Christopher Serrao, 13, of Whitehouse Station, N.J., celebrates after becoming one of eight co-champions in the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, Friday, May 31, 2019, in Oxon Hill, Md. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Sahil Langote, 13, of New Castle, Del., tries to figure out how to spell his word as he competes in the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Oxon Hill, Md., Thursday, May 30, 2019. Langote incorrectly spelled his word and was eliminated from the competition. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Nathan Ostermann, 14, of El Centro, Calif., competes in the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, Thursday, May 30, 2019, in Oxon Hill, Md. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Saketh Sundar, 13, of Clarksville, Md., completes spelling a correct word in the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, Thursday, May 30, 2019, in Oxon Hill, Md. The spelling bee ended with Sundar and seven others in an unprecedented 8-way championship tie after organizers ran out of challenging words. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Spelling Bee Director Paige Kimball, second from right, talks with the final competitors during a break in the 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee in Oxon Hill, Md., Thursday, May 30, 2019. The bee ended in an unprecedented 8-way championship tie after organizers ran out of challenging words. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Rishik Gandhasri, 13, of San Jose, Calif., reacts after spelling his final word correctly during the finals of the 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee in Oxon Hill, Md., Thursday, May 30, 2019. The spelling bee ended in unprecedented 8-way championship tie after organizers ran out of challenging words. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Scripps National Spelling Bee pronouncer Jacques Bailly, center, listens to a speller in the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, late Thursday, May 30, 2019, in Oxon Hill, Md. The bee ended in an unprecedented 8-way championship tie after organizers ran out of challenging words. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Erin Howard, 14, of Huntsville, Ala., gets excited after receiving her last word to spell as she competes in the finals of the 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee in Oxon Hill, Md., Thursday, May 30, 2019. She spelled the word correctly and she and seven other spellers will share the 2019 championship. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Erin Howard, 14, of Huntsville, Ala., reacts as she prepares to spell her final word as she competes in the finals of the 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee in Oxon Hill, Md., Thursday, May 30, 2019. She spelled the word correctly and she and seven other spellers will share the 2019 championship. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Erin Howard, center, 14, of Huntsville, Ala., celebrates after becoming one of eight co-champions in the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, Friday, May 31, 2019, in Oxon Hill, Md. Co-champions pictured behind Howard are Rishik Gandhasri, 13, of San Jose, Calif., from left, Shruthika Padhy, 13, of Cherry Hill, N.J., Sohum Sukhatankar, 13, of Dallas, Texas, Abhijay Kodali, 12, of Flower Mound, Texas, Christopher Serrao, 13, of Whitehouse Station, N.J., Saketh Sundar, 13, of Clarksville, Md., and Rohan Raja, 13, of Irving, Texas. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
An official speaks with the eight remaining Scripps National Spelling Bee competitors during a break as the trophy is moved offstage in the finals, Thursday, May 30, 2019, in Oxon Hill, Md. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Alice Liu, right, 12, of Chesterfield, Mo., gets a hugs from Melodie Loya, 14, of Bainbridge, N.Y., after misspelling her word as she competes in the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Oxon Hill, Md., Thursday, May 30, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

The bee's rules called for no more than three spellers to share the title. The possibility of four or more winners wasn't considered before Thursday. Paige Kimble, the bee's executive director, said bee officials developed a contingency plan for multiple champions after gauging the spellers' performance in the earlier final rounds.

"When we began to comprehend the mettle of our finalists, we began to think about what could possibly happen this evening," Kimble said. "We went into the evening with the plan that we executed on this evening."

Each winner got a chance to celebrate individually upon completing his or her final word, although some were more demonstrative than others. Shruthika, a 13-year-old from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, was staggering to the microphone before her last few words, and after her final word she wobbled back to her chair and wearily shook the hands of her co-champions.

Sohun, a 13-year-old from Dallas, spoke for the group about how they were all satisfied with the result.

"Spellers improve. It's natural and the rate at which people are improving is amazing," said Sohun, a previous winner of both the North South Foundation spelling bee and the South Asian Spelling Bee. "Everyone learns, everyone gets so much better."

But there were murmurs of discontent.

Naysa Modi, last year's runner-up who surprisingly missed out on the finals as a result of her score on the preliminary written test, was in tears as the confetti fell.

"I'm really disappointed that I missed finals by a whisker. And to rub salt in the wound even further, I knew every single word that they asked today since this morning," Naysa said in a text message. "However, I feel that all eight champions deserved it and I'd like to congratulate them."

And the consensus among spelling experts in the crowd is that Scripps didn't nearly exhaust the words in the dictionary that can challenge the best spellers.

"This would never happen at my bee," said Rahul Walia, founder of the South Asian Spelling Bee, where Sohum defeated Abhijay for the title last year. "They need to use harder words. The words are available."

The majority of the spellers had personal coaches, and 13 of the 16 used word lists and study materials compiled by ex-spellers Shobha Dasari and her younger brother, Shourav. Shobha, who's 18 and will go to Stanford in the fall, said the proliferation of private coaches and online study guides has simplified speller preparation, but she still gave credit to the champions.

"The kids still have to put in the work," Shobha said.

Read Full Story

Sign up for Breaking News by AOL to get the latest breaking news alerts and updates delivered straight to your inbox.

Subscribe to our other newsletters

Emails may offer personalized content or ads. Learn more. You may unsubscribe any time.