Alright, alright, alright, before we start here, I know what some of you going to say. The Spelling Bee isn't sports. They're not running or jumping or doing anything athletic. They're standing on a stage spelling. I know! We're calling it a sporting event because a) it annoys you, personally, and we grow stronger from your irritation and b) it was genuinely an incredible competition, and the fact that they were spelling and not jumping doesn't make it any less incredible. So save your breath.
The Scripps National Spelling Bee featured a pair of virtuosic performers, unstoppable, going punch-for-punch with each other, until eventually it was decided that both performers were too damn good so it wasn't worth hanging around all night trying to find out who was better. It was two competitors with no flaws going head-to-head. It was two geniuses boggling our minds with their minds -- and they were children.
Sports are inherently based on failure. To find the best player or team, we have to also find all the many players and teams who are worse. Somebody gets to win, but a lot of people have to lose. Take this year's NBA Finals: LeBron James, who will finish his career as one of the greatest players of all time, is playing against the Golden State Warriors, who had statistically one of the best seasons of any team of all time. Both are great. But one will get to be champion, while the other gets to be called a fraud by sports talk radio hosts.
The spelling bee, too, is inherently based on failure. Kids go up on stage and spell things until they get something wrong. Somebody rings a bell, and the kid is sad. One kid doesn't spell anything wrong, and he or she wins. We're mainly watching for the sad kids, though.
But it turns out kids are too good at spelling, so they can't actually do it this way.. To weed every kid out by on-stage elimination would take weeks, so the competitors are given off-stage tests. About 200 kids survived preliminaries without spelling any words wrong, but only the 50 with the best results from the off-stage tests moved on to the semifinals. 21 of these kids spelled no words wrong on stage, but more tests determined the best 10 for the finals. In 2015, most of the kids eliminated never have an embarrassing on-stage misspelling.
And when the competition got down to the final three, they have to put a finite end to the proceedings. They throw out all but the toughest 25 words, and whichever competitor was left standing after these 25 words is the winner. Even if that meant multiple competitors, like in last year's competition.
Three became two really quickly: Cole Shafer-Ray, typically confident with his answers, got a word he clearly didn't know, "acritarch." He searched for possibilities, but the look on his face showed that he knew it was over the second he got the word.
That left the two dominant forces who would battle for the title, competing in an epic war of spelling and swag.
In the first corner, Vanya Shivashankar, a 13-year-old girl with more poise than the entire adult population of my family combined. The younger sister of a former champ, Shivashankar won $100,000 on a show called "Child Genius" testing a slew of brilliant kids in not just spelling, but math and geography and trivia and current events and more.
Vanya knows everything. While other kids are sweating bullets and having panic attacks, Vanya smiles and nods as soon as she finishes spelling a word, not even waiting for confirmation she was right. Her smile hides an inner monologue that has clearly stopped feeling challenged by this weak-ass competition. "Come on, you trifling punk spelling bee judges," you can hear her saying in her head. "Get the hell out of here with this weak nonsense and make me work for this win." On most words, she asks the judges if the word comes from a specific root, essentially a sign that she knows the specific origin of a large chunk of letters in the word. Over and over she asks, over and over the judges roll their eyes and confirm that she's right, an over and over she coasts through a word she's already basically told us she knows.
In the other corner, Gokul Venkatachalam. Last year's third-place winner, Venkatachalam is the focus of a TV segment on his passion for LeBron. He wears LeBron's jersey under his dress shirt. He hits a few jumpers in the clip -- not something you normally see from the hyper-nerd spelling bee stereotype -- and says he wants to challenge LeBron to a game of HORSE called NONPAREIL, because Gokul LIVES vocabulary words while the rest of these jokers just pretend. He finishes with a pitch-perfect "I'm taking my talents to the spelling bee."
Gokul also knows everything. But unlike smiling Vanya, Gokul is stone-faced. Look at Gokul watching Vanya spell. If she gets a letter wrong, he wins a prize he's worked his whole life for. I'd be losing my mind on the edge of my seat with every letter. He looks like he picked a seat in the back of the classroom so he can fall asleep without the teacher noticing.
He does not celebrate. He does not recoil at tough words. He does not laugh at the judge's attempts at humor. He does not show any emotion whatsoever. He just spells and leaves a pile of vanquished words in his wake. While other spellers pepper the judges with questions, in part to find answers, in part to buy time, and in part out of routine, Gokul spits his answer as soon as he knows it. He pretends to emulate LeBron, whereas it is clear he knows he is better at spelling than LeBron James could ever hope to be at basketball.
As the final round goes on, it becomes clear neither will break. They're given preposterously difficult words, words nobody has ever seen with unpredictable strange spellings, and they don't flinch. They just nail them. They're given words like "paroemiology," a word with an unexplained "o" chilling in it. Swish. They're given words like "thamakau," from rarely used Fijian, with no real context clues for non-Fijian speakers. Bang. They're given words like "scytale" -- rhymes with "Italy," spelled totally differently. Easy. They're given words like "pipsissewa," "nixtamal," "pyrrhuloxia," "zimocca," and "hippocrepiform." Let it be shown for the record that my spellcheck does not recognize any of these words:
The spellers do. Bang bang bang bang bang.
Eventually the judge tells Gokul that if he spells a word right, there wouldn't be enough words left for one champion to emerge, so if he gets it right, both he and Vanya win. They ask him the word, and...
HE JUST STEPS UP AND SPELLS IT. HE DOESN'T ASK FOR A DEFINITION. HE DOESN'T ASK FOR A PART OF SPEECH. HE DIDN'T ASK FOR A LANGUAGE OF ORIGIN OR PRONUNCIATION OR ANYTHING.
Gokul doesn't need your pathetic clues. You're a loser and he's Gokul. Why would he need your help? He just spelled the word, because he knew it and he knew that he knew it and he wanted you to know that he knew that he knew it.
This is pulling up from halfcourt in a tie game and drilling a game-winner. This is swinging on a 3-0 count and hitting a walk-off homer. This is starting to high-step on the 50-yard-line of your game-winning TD.
The spelling title was split, as was the swag championship.
You can't be more perfect than perfect. If there wasn't a limit on words in the final round, we would still be here this morning and tomorrow morning watching Gokul and Vanya spell. They would grow old. Slowly, the judges and audience and cameramen would die off. But Gokul and Vanya would not stop competing. There would still be still more words for them to spell correctly. They would quest into eternity, trying to decide who was the better speller. They would live their lives chasing a final answer that would never come.
Luckily, they don't have to. They just got to share the thing. Two groups of people got to be happy instead of the usual one, because both the people they were rooting for were too good to pick just one.
So until the next time you see a sporting event this year where both teams are just so perfect that everybody has to go home because there's no point, I'm going to call this the best sporting event of 2015. Jerks.
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