After intense spelling bee, winner plans for life beyond ‘chorepiscopus’

After intense spelling bee, winner plans for life beyond ‘chorepiscopus’

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Harini Logan went into the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee on Thursday night feeling the weight of the past: the years of studying, her three previous attempts that fell short, her furious preparation for this one last shot at the championship before she aged out of the competition.

The next morning, the 14-year-old eighth-grader was dreaming of the future. She had just won the bee after a decisive, heart-stopping 90-second spell-off, and she was already making plans for her more than $50,000 in prize money.

Harini said she’ll save some of it for college — she dreams of attending Stanford University and studying medicine and business — and she hopes to learn about investing in the stock market. But she also wants to start a fund “for helping students in underprivileged areas where they can’t get access to the bee even if they want to do it.”

Runner-up Vikram Raju, 12, had a different take regarding his $25,000 prize.

“I don’t know what to do with it yet,” he said, “because I’m not really good at figuring out what to do with my money.”

Harini Logan of Texas wins National Spelling Bee in first-ever spell-off

Both spellers had been here before. Vikram, of Aurora, Colo., tied for 51st place in 2019 and for 21st last year. Harini, a San Antonio native, tied for 323rd place in 2018, for 30th in 2019 and for 31st in 2021. She had seen the 2020 competition canceled because of the pandemic, and the 2021 contest made partly virtual.

“There’s definitely a gravity about my fourth and final time,” Harini said Friday, following three days of competition at National Harbor. “I’m just so fortunate and grateful to have my final bee in person.”

As the winner, Harini will receive $50,000 in cash, a commemorative medal and the official championship trophy from the bee; $2,500 in cash and a reference library from Merriam-Webster; and $400 of reference works from Encyclopaedia Britannica. Vikram will receive a medal and the $25,000 in cash.

The prizes aren’t the only reward. At breakfast Thursday, the finalists learned they would visit the White House on Friday and “erupted in cheering,” said Corrie Loeffler, editorial director for Scripps National Spelling Bee. (The Bidens weren’t home, but it “was awesome,” Vikram said.) On Friday evening, there will be a banquet celebration, awards ceremony and farewell party back at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center. As is tradition, the festivities will conclude with a dance party.

Vikram Raju, 12, of Aurora, Colo., danced outside the White House with Jacques Bailly, the official pronouncer for the bee on June 3. (Video: The Washington Post)

The bee stretched late into Thursday night, culminating in the first spell-off in the competition’s history, between Harini and Vikram. The spell-off provision was added last year, Loeffler explained, though it wasn’t used. Part of the rationale, she said, was that contestants had studied “thousands and thousands of words” only to be quizzed on a handful, so a rapid-fire tiebreaker would allow them “the greatest possible chance to show off how much they’ve learned.”

Another part of the thinking, especially for young kids still spelling away as midnight neared: “At some point,” Loeffler said, “the competition has to end.”

The finalists had rehearsed for a spell-off, she said, and knew it was a possibility.

“It was looming,” said Harini, who had started practicing speed-spelling a month or two before the competition. “Definitely I was a little bit anxious, and the fact that it actually came down to a spell-off was a bit unreal.”

Vikram went first and nailed 12 spellings to start, from “spealbone” (“the shoulder blade used by magicians or medicine men in divination”) to “teosinte” (a grass of Central and South America), finishing with 15 correct out of 19 words attempted.

Harini fired off the same 12 to start, but she operated at a quicker pace, getting to 26 words in total and spelling 22 correctly. Her last seven words, which Vikram never reached, ranged from “chorepiscopus” (a rank of Catholic bishop) to “moorhen” (a red-billed aquatic bird).

Vikram and his family planned to stick around D.C. until Sunday, after exploring some Smithsonian museums, said his mom, Sandhya Ayyar. A few Colorado news outlets have inquired about meeting him at the airport when he lands, Ayyar said; one asked him to fill in as weatherman for a day. He’s considering it, he said.

“You know, it has been quite the overwhelming roller coaster,” Ayyar said. “He was upset, but I think he then realized what he achieved last night and he feels proud about himself.”

“This year, I didn’t even expect to become a finalist,” Vikram said, adding, “I kind of learned my true potential from the bee. So that’s a really important thing the bee taught me: It really taught me how to not underestimate myself.”

Zaila Avant-garde, the winner of last year’s bee and the competition’s first African American champion, had prepared for a spell-off last year, she said, and had always thought it would be exciting to watch one. Sitting in the audience Thursday night in Maryland, “listening to the two of them go, it was really impressive,” she said.

“It’s suspenseful, an edge-of-your-seat moment,” said Zaila, a 15-year-old basketball player who recently moved to the District from Louisiana. “It’s great for TV.”

Zaila Avant-garde wins 2021 National Spelling Bee, becoming its first African American champion

She said she liked that the “nerve-racking” spell-off is such a different beast from the traditional format, which allows spellers to deliberate and ask questions. And she was “super happy” for Harini, with whom she had talked earlier in the competition.

“I was actually crying when she won and the confetti came down,” Zaila said.

Harini credited her mother’s coaching for her win. Her advice to other spellers? Work hard, don’t let your nerves overcome you and “be proud of yourself. No matter how far you come. Just realizing that you’ve done your best.”

Now Harini plans to take some time off to relax. “This will be my first summer for many years without spelling,” she said.

Vikram, meanwhile, vowed to return next year. “I’m very hopeful that I can keep up with my ranking and even become first,” he said.

After all, he’s only in seventh grade, so he still has one more shot.

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