There was no stage, no audience, and no trophy. Dr. Jacques Bailey, the pronouncer at the Scripps National Spelling Bee, was nowhere to be found.
But 14-year-old Navneeth Murali managed to win anyway. Sort of.
By correctly spelling out “karoshthi” on Thursday, the eighth-grader from Edison, N.J., became the first champion of the SpellPundit Online National Spelling Bee: a video-chat alternative to the official competition, organized by spellers themselves.
Among the many marquee events this year forced to cancel by the coronavirus was the Scripps bee, which proves so dramatic that its finals at Maryland’s National Harbor are televised annually on ESPN. After the pandemic made large gatherings impossible, Scripps canceled this year’s edition — for the first time since 1945.
The event is strictly limited to elementary and middle school students, so eighth-grade contestants, including Navneeth, will be ineligible next year as they enter high school. Scripps has said it will not extend eligibility, the Associated Press reported.
Having poured hours a day into mastering their craft, many finalists in their last year of middle school were not ready to call it quits just yet.
The company, founded by former spellers Shourav and Shobha Dasari, crafted a word list and hosted the video tournament. SpellPundit helps young contestants prepare for the Scripps bee, and they ran an efficient and challenging alternative over Zoom, including multiple nights of video-chats, according to the AP.
After Navneeth accurately spelled his word — an ancient, cursive script used in India and central Asia, with Aramaic origins — the Dasari siblings displayed pixelated confetti and fake crowd noise from their computer screen.
“I knew all the words in the bee,” Navneeth told the AP. “I just didn’t want to be overconfident, because you never know what can happen in a spelling bee because no one knows the dictionary completely.”