OXON HILL, Md. — As the Scripps National Spelling Bee inched its way through the four grueling rounds that would determine the primetime finalists, two spellers seemed like young men among boys and girls.
Sitting on opposite sides of the stage, veteran spellers Tejas Muthusamy and Shourav Dasari, both 14, handled their time at the microphone with ease and flair. Both came into the bee with high expectations and were among the 15 spellers competing Thursday night for a trophy and more than $40,000 in cash and prizes.
Shourav, of Spring, Texas, the tallest speller on stage at 5 foot 11, kept his hands inside the pocket of his black Nike hoodie and went through the motions of asking a few questions — definition, language of origin — about words he clearly knew. In the spelling bee equivalent of a bat flip in baseball, he turned away and began walking toward his seat before he even heard the words “you’re correct” from a judge.
“I just knew that I got it right,” Shourav said in his slight Texas drawl. “No need to stand around.”
Shourav was highly touted ahead of last year’s bee, having swept the two minor-league bees — the North South Foundation and the South Asian Spelling Bee — that serve as a proving ground for future champions. But he was eliminated just short of the primetime finals, continuing what some spellers refer to as the “Dasari family curse.” His older sister, Shobha, competed in the bees three times and also suffered some tough eliminations.
No matter how he fares later Thursday, the curse is over, he said.
“We’ve always gone out in the round before the night finals,” Shourav said. “That’s not an issue now.”
Shourav has grown 4 inches in the past year. Tejas, too, has matured from a round-faced, slightly chubby kid into a lanky and elegant teenager with wispy facial hair.
Tejas, from Glen Allen, Virginia, finished in the top 10 in 2014 and 2015. But last year, he was eliminated before the finals. He started studying again the day he got home, aiming to be more confident on stage this year. So far, so good.
His goal has been to win, but he’s come to a Zen-like understanding of what he called the “vicissitudes” of spelling bees. It hasn’t come easily.
“I’m a natural pessimist. Slowly I’ve understood that even champions who spell every word correctly don’t know every word in the bee,” Tejas said. “I’ve kind of accepted that.”
Tejas said he knew every word he’d been given before he stepped up to the microphone and was given “bucatini,” a pasta in the form of long, thin tubes. After making sure he got all the information about the word from pronouncer Jacques Bailly, he spelled it correctly and tipped his head back in relief.
While Shourav and Tejas survived, three previous top-10 finishers were eliminated: Siyona Mishra, Rutvik Gandharsi and Jashun Paluru. Siyona, the reigning South Asian Spelling Bee champion, went out on “corriedale,” a large, hornless sheep from New Zealand.
“She got a really hard word,” said Sylvie Lamontagne, who finished fourth last year and is now coaching younger spellers. “It always happens to someone.”
The remaining spellers also include Naysa Modi, already making her third appearance in the bee at age 11, and Rohan Sachdev, for whom spelling is a distraction from his first love, tennis. He’s the top-ranked player in his age group in his home state of North Carolina.
Rounding out the top 15: Shruthika Padhy, Ananya Vinay, Alex Iyer, Rohan Rajeev, Raksheet Kota, Alice Liu, Saketh Sundar, Sreeniketh Vogoti, Shrinidhi Gopal, Mira Dedhia, and Erin Howard.
No matter what happens later Thursday at a convention centre outside Washington, it’s all but certain that either Shourav or Tejas will leave disappointed. The bee has ended in a tie for three years running, but this year it added a written tiebreaker test in an attempt to identify a single champion.
As much as they might not admit it after thousands of hours of practice, luck remains a factor.
“The dictionary is so vast,” Tejas said. “A lot of spellers talk about conquering the dictionary. I don’t think that’s possible.”