Once again, two kids earned a co-championship at the National Spelling Bee. "Co-championship" sounds stupid, but take a second to think about what happened.
After two straight years of co-champions, the Spelling Bee made changes to ensure there would not be a third straight year of co-champions. The past two years, there were 25 words considered "championship words," words difficult enough that the organizers felt comfortable having as the word which decided the competition's winner. But each speller got too many of those right for a winner to be decided.
This year, they had 25 *rounds* of those words. So each speller would have to answer 25 before the competition ended in a tie. But for a third straight year, each speller was too good, and the people in charge of finding the most difficult words to spell ran out of difficult words.
For the third straight year, the Spelling Bee provided ridiculously high drama. Each competitor kept nailing ridiculously complex words, and instead of the night ending with one speller's failure, it ended with two kids so smart that they had to give out two trophies.
In the one corner, we had Jairam. Here's Jairam hearing the sounds "yitt-sha" and thinking, "Oh, sure, g-y-t-t-j-a."
Jairam's older brother won the spelling bee a few years ago. As a younger brother, I found myself rooting for Jairam, because even as a tiny tween he was staring down a life of being incredibly smart, but not as incredibly smart as his older brother who was the champion and not the runner up, and that would've been the worst.
In the other, we had Nihar, the smartest and swaggiest child I have ever seen. Most kids in the bee use deductive reasoning based on the language of origin and roots they're familiar with to piece together words they've never heard before. Nihar, on the other hand, KNEW PRETTY MUCH EVERY WORD ASKED OF HIM OFF THE TOP OF HIS HEAD.
When he was asked to spell "taoiseach" (a word I can barely spell even now, the next morning after several times seeing it) his response was "oh, like the prime minister of Ireland?"
When he was asked to spell "biniou," he knew that it was a bagpipe from Brittany in France:
At 11, Nihar isn't even old enough that he's supposed to win the spelling bee, an event which allows competitors to be as old as eighth grade. And yet I'm pretty confident he could win Jeopardy right now, the adult one. Even though he had two minutes, Nihar often finished spelling within 30 seconds. I found myself rooting for him, the same way I root for Steph Curry to hit 38-footers when he takes them.
But the best part of Nihar was not even the preposterous depth and breadth of information he knows: it was the fact that he was sitting in the background spelling out every word his competitors were spelling. He INSTANTLY knew when they were wrong:
At one point, Jairam spelled a word wrong, and Nihar was in the background, shaking his head:
But Nihar couldn't spell the word given to him to win the championship. Surprisingly, this happened *twice*, and Nihar couldn't close either time.
Eventually, both won: Nihar celebrated like his favorite football player, Dez Bryant, because he is filled with swag.
Jairam celebrated by trying to give his new championship pal Nihar a big high-five, but Nihar was too filled with swag to notice:
I get that some people will see a third straight co-championship as a sign of the Participation Trophy Era of American sports, where we're so afraid to tell children they lost that we gave everybody a trophy to make them feel good about themselves. I don't think that's the case: Literally thousands of children entered this competition, and 284 went to Washington for the finals. Only two were so good that they couldn't come up with words to stump them.
Perhaps the spelling bee should make changes to avoid co-champions happening a fourth straight year. I mean, they already made changes to avoid co-champions for a third straight year, but clearly those didn't work. Maybe they should just have infinite difficult words on tap. It would've been cool to see these kids dueling into next week, each unable to spell a word wrong. Maybe they should find words that are harder. Is that possible? Can they get harder than "kjeldahl" and "ynambu?"
Perhaps they should try to avoid another co-championship. But I, for one, found myself rooting for both kids, and I'm glad both got to win.
(And, yes, I called it a sporting event in the headline just to see if anybody would get mad about me describing a spelling bee as "sports." I dunno, maybe it's sports, I'm mainly just interested to see if I get any angry emails from people who haven't read this far.)
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