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These Kids Are Intense

Feature: A day at the Scripps National Spelling Bee

Spelling Bee
Nihar Saireddy Janga, 11, left, and Jairam Jagadeesh Hathwar, 13, hold the trophy as they celebrate being named the co-champions of the Scripps National Spelling Bee / AP
• May 27, 2016 1:55 pm

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Is this a cheese? Is this a Breton bagpipe? Is this a witch? And it’s Spanish? Does this come from the Greek root meaning saliva?

There’s a reason the Scripps National Spelling Bee airs on ESPN, beyond its two-time achievement as highest Nielsen Twitter TV ratings for the final week in May. It has the makings of any sport—endless practice, drive to compete, and mental stamina. The love of the game.

"You’ve heard of tiger moms? These are tiger kids," a man whose nonprofit supports the event said. The parents are the ones that have to tell their children to take a break from studying, but these spellers are so driven that they probably move on to one of their other competitive hobbies.

The 285 spellers competing made it past a field of 11 million participants, according to the bee’s executive director. They spend three or four hours a day practicing spelling, maintain a full course load, and usually have something to help blow off steam, such as ballet, or ancient Japanese instruments, or singing the periodic table.

Yet, they are still kids. The "Get to Know the Spellers" section in the program says the 285 spellers named Doctor Who, Sherlock, and SpongeBob SquarePants as their favorite shows. For music, they picked Taylor Swift, Adele, and Ludwig van Beethoven. Several want to study at Harvard to become neurosurgeons, and have decided that before their feet comfortably reach the floor. (OK, so not very normal kids.)

Their youth is more evident in the first rounds. During a commercial break, a dad brings a banana, already peeled, to his son. Another break, a girl tells her mother she doesn’t know whether she’ll be ready for lunch even after the morning rounds are over. She looks like she might not ever be ready for lunch.

And then there’s the crowd. We’re in a ballroom at the Gaylord in Maryland’s National Harbor, and you’d be hard-pressed to find an empty seat. Everyone is silently spelling along.

Cameron Armstrong, an Alaskan who had already been eliminated, sat with his parents in the third row. His mother typed words on her phone while he wrote in an official National Spelling Bee notebook.

An ESPN reserved section seated several spellebrities, including 2015 co-champ Vanya Shivashankar and Internet star Jacob Williamson, who finished No. 7 in 2014. Williamson is going around getting this year’s spellers to sign an official autograph book, and stops to ask Shivashankar which words this year would have tripped her up. He goes back to spelling along, and when Smythri Upadhyaula correctly spells "ocypode," he shrieks, "Wonderful!"

The media section is playing along too, but it’s head-shaking all around. Being a professional editor and watching these kids feels humbling.

The rest of the room is filled with spellers who have been eliminated and their families—siblings that have competed before and younger siblings in training.

Fourth-place Sylvie Lamontagne let a fluttery exhalation hit her microphone in later rounds, closing her eyes, but it seemed like the ballroom didn’t exhale until after she spelled each of the next few words correctly—kakiemon, ekka, shubunkin. She started to spell chaoborine and stumbled, and the crowd let out an "Aw!" even before the judges rang the bell. They knew, and their parents knew, and were fresh on the feeling of being eliminated.

They, too, walked off the stage and sat on the gray elimination sectional sofa alongside a table with a large plate of chocolate-chip cookies and a box of Kleenex. More often, they went for the cookies. Several said they were competing against the words, not their fellow competitors.

In the end, Nihar Janga and Jairam Hathwar—normal looking but brilliant, driven middle-schoolers—held up a trophy as co-champions while confetti shot from the sides of the stage.

Hathwar, 13, is the Eli Manning of his family. His brother Sriram was co-champion two years ago. He quoted Jordan Speith, his favorite golfer, on moving past previous mistakes. His family is overjoyed.

Janga, 11, is the youngest-ever winner and a football fan. In a video recorded before the Bee, he sits on a sofa, open dictionary in his lap, talking about his Dallas Cowboys, Dez Bryant in particular. He said if he won the Bee, his dad would take him to Cowboys Stadium. Upon being crowned co-champion, he did Bryant’s signature victory dance, throwing his arms up in an X. He’s going to Dallas.

Published under: Feature