Jose Luis Magana/AFP
OXON HILL, Md. Harini Logan continues to try to learn from impending spelling errors online. Famous for years as being one of the English language’s best spellers, it never received a national title.
In the biggest bumblebee of them all, she endured a new series of setbacks, but somehow, in the end, they were still there.
Harini was disqualified, then reinstated, during the multiple-choice vocabulary tour of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. She misspelled four times as Scripps’ more difficult words proved too much for her and Vikram Raju, who also misspelled four times in the closing stage. And then she finally took down Vikram in the first lightning-bee playoff round on Thursday night.
He called it the spelled version of “The Revenant”.
Her longtime coach, Grace Walters, said, “Harnie has gone to hell and is back with her spelling expertise.”
The 14-year-old eighth grader from San Antonio, Texas, who competed in his last fully-personalized bee three years ago and endured the plague to come back, spelled 21 words correctly over a 90-second period, hitting Vikram with a six. The winning word, according to Scripps, was “morhen,” meaning red grouse female, because it was she who stirred up Vikram’s past.
For the past couple of months, always prepared Harini has trained for the prospect of a lightning tour, a format I found uncomfortable.
“When it came out last year, I was a little terrified, to be honest,” said Harini. “I’m going slow. That’s my thing. I didn’t know how to pay in this place.”
Harini, a crowd favorite for her poise and positivity, has won over $50,000 in cash and prizes. She is the first Scripps Champion to be brought back during the competition. And that was before four late stumbles.
“I think it was really easy to get carried away, to get kind of like, ‘Wow, why do I miss so much?'” said Harini. “Really just focusing on the next word and knowing I’m still around, I think it was just a huge relief to me.”
She is the fifth Scripps champion to be coached by Walters, a former auditor and fellow Texan and a Rice University student who is considering dropping out of coaching. Harini also got help from Navneeth Murali, handed over by one of these runners-up to the 2020 online SpellPundit – a consolation prize for Scripps’ bee that has been canceled due to the pandemic.
It was Walters and Navneth who rushed to the judges of the bees, along with Harini’s mother, Priya, as soon as Harini walked off stage on the singles tour, apparently her most crushing disappointment ever.
“My heart stopped for a moment,” Harini said.
Harini defined the word “pullulation” as nesting for mating birds. The correct answer, Scripps said, was to swarm bees. Her supporters made the case to the judges that she got it right. A few minutes later, jury chairwoman Mary Brooks announced the opposite.
“We did some spying after I was done, which is our job, to make sure we made the right decision,” Brooks said. “We[did]do a little deep dive into that word and in fact the answer you gave to that word is correct, so we’re going to put you back in your position.”
From there, Harini reached the finals against Vikram. They all spelled two words correctly. Then Scripps brought out the harshest words of the night.
Both are misspelled. Then Vikram got it wrong again and Harini got ‘sereh’ right, putting it off the title with one word. The word was “dream” and I misunderstood it.
Two more rounds, two more misspelled words each, and Scripps knocked out the podium and bell for the thunderbolt round that all the finalists practiced in a nearly empty dance floor hours before.
Harini was faster and sharper throughout, and the judges’ final tally confirmed her victory.
“I knew I had to think of the spelling I could think of out of my head, and I had to go a little faster,” said Vikram, 12, a seventh grader from Aurora, Colorado. Who hopes to return next year.
Vihan Sibal, a 13-year-old from McGregor, Texas, placed third and also has another year of eligibility. Sharsh Vupala, a 13-year-old in the eighth grade from Bellevue, Washington, came in fourth.
The last fully personalized version of Bee did not have a tie breaker and ended in a tie eight. Bee returned last year in mostly virtual form, with only 11 contestants meeting in the final in Florida where Zaila Avant-Garde became the first black American champion.
Harini is an American Indian, resuming a two-decade trend – 21 of the past 23 champs have South Asian heritage.
Another bumblebee change this year: Scripps has ended its deal with long-time partner ESPN and produced its own telecast for its networks ION and Bounce, with actor and literacy advocate LeVar Burton as host. The transition was bumpy at times, with long and uneven commercial breaks that broke movement and audio glitches that revealed the inner workings of the broadcast to a personal audience.
The bee itself was even smaller, having less than half of the participants in 2019 due to the withdrawal of sponsors and the cancellation of the random card program. The addition of live vocabulary questions during the semi-finals and finals led to surprising eliminations.
Leaving Harini on a word from the vocabulary was the biggest shocker of all.
“In the end, it was all worth it,” Walters said. “Every second place. Every pumpkin. Every tear. All that. This is the ending Harini deserves.”
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