Houston: Harini Logan, a 14-year-old Indian-American eighth-grader from Texas, barely took a breath as she correctly spelled 22 words during a marathon, first-of-its-kind 90-second spell-off to win the 2022 Scripps National Spelling Bee, beating Vikram Raju in the prestigious contest where children of Indian origin have ruled the roost.
Logan, who took home the USD 50,000 cash prize and Scripps Cup trophy on top of awards from Merriam-Webster and Encyclopedia Britannica, was declared champion on Thursday night after she was reinstated by the judges in the final round.
She spelled 22 out of 26 words correctly, while Raju, a 12-year-old boy from Denver, got 15 out of 19 words right during the first-of-its-kind spell-off, a format that tested the contestants on how many words they could correctly spell within 90 seconds.
The final two competitors had trouble deciphering their words between rounds 13 and 18. At that point, judges opted to institute the first spell-off, 90 seconds to spell as many words as possible correctly.
"By correctly spelling 22 words in the Spell-off, the 2022 Scripps National Spelling Bee Champion is Speller231 Harini Logan! Scripps National Spelling Bee said in a tweet.
"Our 2022 Scripps National Spelling Bee Champion Speller231 Harini Logan draws inspiration from VP @KamalaHarris. After tonight, Harini is inspiring a new generation of spellers everywhere. She says it takes a village to build up a speller. Hers is happy tonight, it said.
Vihaan Sibal, a 13-year-old from Texas, finished third while Saharsh Vuppala, a 13-year-old eighth-grader from Washington, was fourth.
Harini, one of the best-known spellers entering the competition and a crowd favourite, nearly did not advance past the word meaning round on Thursday after her answer for "pullulation" was rejected.
"I was like 'Wow, I'm out. This is it,' " Logan said after she was reinstated in the final round.
However, the judges conferred during a break and ruled that the answer she gave could be correct since it could mean "to breed" or "to swarm."
Head judge Mary Brooks explained the ruling and Logan, who only minutes earlier had learned of her reversed fortunes, returned to her seat on the stage, USA Today newspaper reported.
"There were a few minutes in between that were frantic," Logan was quoted as saying.
"Just so surreal, it's my fourth time at the Bee. This is such a dream, this is my fourth bee and I'm just so overwhelmed," said Logan on stage holding the trophy.
Of the first-ever spell-off, she said: "At first I was a little uneasy and I decided to take it in stride ... I just had to take a deep breath and tell myself to go out there and do my best and whatever happens, happens."
"Harini is an Indian-American, resuming a trend that has persisted for two decades 21 of the past 23 champions have had South Asian heritage," the Associated Press reported.
The Spelling Bee, which features elementary and middle school students spelling words that would cause most adults to stumble, has had a tumultuous few years. The National Spelling Bee was launched in 1925.
Owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, the competition was canceled in 2020, a significant shake-up for what is billed as the US' largest and longest-running educational programme, CNN reported.
The Bee returned last year, but with a few changes. The event featured three rounds completed virtually, rather than in-person, with 209 contestants - down from 562 in 2019. The finals were then held in person at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Florida, rather than in the National Harbor in Maryland, where the event had typically been held in recent years.
Though still down from pre-pandemic numbers, this year began with 234 contestants, an increase from last year. Of those who started, only 12 participated in Thursday's final competition.
Another big change this year was the televised broadcast of the Bee. Despite almost three decades on ESPN, the competition aired on ION and Bounce. ESPN has been the home of the Scripps National Spelling Bee since 1994, longer than any of the current contestants have been alive.
This year's host was LeVar Burton. The Emmy and Grammy-award winner hosted the semifinal and the final round of the event.
To discourage the strict memorisation of words and emphasise a holistic approach to language, the Bee began incorporating multiple-choice "word meaning" rounds last year. Competitors aren't asked to spell; instead, they are given a word with three definitions and they must choose the correct one.
The lone word-meaning round on Thursday proved to be a litmus test, as it was for all of the 234 spellers who travelled to Maryland for the finals. Half of the remaining field bowed out.
Harini Logan's final winning word: moorhen. Part of speech: noun. Def: the female of the red grouse. Language of origin: This word is originally English. Sentence: The hunter took aim at the moorhen after the beaters had flushed it from the heather, Scripps National Spelling Bee said in a tweet.
The National Bee is a high-profile, high-pressure endurance test as much as a nerd spelling match and spellers spend months preparing for it. Over the past 20 years, Indian-Americans have been dominating the Spelling Bee contest even though they comprise only about 1 per cent of the US population.
The US Spelling Bee reflects the dominance young kids from the small ethnic community have had on this prestigious test for more than a decade now.
Since Balu Natarajan won it in 1985, 20 Indian-origin children have been crowned champions at the competition. Zaila Avant-garde, a 14-year-old basketball prodigy, won the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee, becoming the first African American contestant to win the prestigious competition.
Indian-Americans, who have been dominating the National Spelling Bee for years, had to be satisfied with the 2nd and 3rd positions. Chaitra Thummala, a 12-year-old from San Francisco and Bhavana Madini, 13, from New York won second and third place at the keenly-fought competition, which was attended by US First Lady Jill Biden.
It was the first time since 2008 that at least one champion or co-champion of the Scripps National Spelling Bee was not of South Asian descent.
The Bee was cancelled in 2020 - for the first time since World War II - due to the coronavirus pandemic. But there were eight co-champions in 2019, seven of whom were Indian-Americans, bringing the total number of Indian-American champions since 1999 to 26