Unsurprisingly, Sriram had the lion's share of publicity entering the bee, since this was his fifth appearance on the national stage. His interviews showed an accomplished young man with an unusual and refreshing humility about him, acknowledging that by the time the finals hit, the bee could go any direction, and anyone could win as easily as he. And after the cheering had died down and as the confetti floated to the floor, he stated with equal grace, "I think we both know that the competition is against the dictionary, not against each other. I'm happy to share this trophy with [Ansun]."
For his part, Ansun fought valiantly as well. As a relative underdog, he hadn't made it past the preliminary rounds in 2013. But with a disarming and fleeting smile and a relaxing of the shoulders, he told the crowd virtually every time he got a word he knew - which was virtually every word, save one.
That word came in Round 16, the round in which both spellers faltered. Sriram stumbled on "corpsbruder," opening the way for Ansun to potentially take the win. But Ansun immediately showed his discomfort with "antigropelos" - a discomfort shared by everyone in the ballroom. After both missed their words, both boys soldiered on for six more perfect rounds until, after Sriram mastered "stichomythia" and Ansun tackled "feuilleton," the confetti cannons roared to celebrate both of them.
Not that these were the only two stars on stage yesterday. Easily the most ebullient of the finalists, Jacob Williamson wowed everyone with his frenetic, Rebecca Sealfon-worthy outbursts whenever he received a word he knew - which was often. Jacob's downfall on "kabaragoya" was devastating: he was thrilled, once again, to say that he knew it, but after zooming through the word without asking any questions, he heard the dreaded bell, signaling that the "c" he put in place of the "k" was wrong. His dejection provided one of the bee's most dramatic moments. For her part, Kate Miller was utterly charming and unerringly pleasant, even when she was eliminated a few rounds earlier. Quite possibly trained in the realms of pageant competitions, Kate was all smiles and grace as she gave a royal wave upon missing "exochorion"; later, she spoke directly into the camera - and not to the ESPN interviewer - as she described how her mind was trying to dissect her word.
By the time Round 11 hit, the bee had whittled the competition down to the very best of the best, the kernel from which any of the six remaining spellers could justifiably take the trophy. Alas, it was not to be. Mary Horton, whose brother Jonathan last competed in 2011, was a hurricane's eye of calm, poise, and restraint as she unsuccessfully attempted the frightening "aetites." Her root questions, despite being well-placed, were ultimately fruitless, and her try was just one letter off. The last girl standing, Alia Abiad, gave a similarly valiant attempt at "irbis," a Russian word by way of Mongol and Kalmuck. Alia had impressed the audience with her quiet confidence onstage throughout the competition, and it was sad to see her depart.
Other spellers originally thought destined for the finals met their end prematurely. After surviving a brutal qualifying bee in Houston this year, Syamantak Payra, who tied for seventh place last year, might have considered the national bee a cakewalk by comparison. Yet after breezing through the first oral rounds on "pasteurize" and "burgoo," Syamantak hit an early demise in the semifinal rounds with an unexpected misspelling of "circumforaneous." Everyone in the ballroom, led by his fellow spellers, gave him a standing ovation as he left the stage in shock and anguish. Another favorite did not get to receive this honor. Vanya Shivashankar, sister to 2009 champion Kavya Shivashankar, also moved easily through the semifinals, yet because of an insufficiently high written test score, did not advance. As her name was not called to join the ranks of the finalists, everyone stood to applaud the finalists, and she simply stood on stage with the remaining spellers without a medal around her neck. Next year is her final year of competition, and she must feel the lion's share of pressure; an intro to the bee aired on ESPN showed a bee pointing at her sister's trophy while Vanya, visibly nettled, says "Yes! I know that's my sister's trophy! Don't bother me! I'm working on it!" It was pretty painful to watch that clip after she had already been eliminated.
The good news is that Vanya does have one more chance at the title next year, as do two of the other finalists; a third has even three more chances. For now, I wish them all rest, quietude, and a respite from the excitement of this year's bee. And to Sriram and Ansun, the highest of congratulations for a battle well-fought and a language well-learned.
See you all in 2015!