They couldn't be rattled. They couldn't be denied. Gokul Venkatachalam and Vanya Shivashankar had worked too hard and come close too many times not to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
So they shared the title on Thursday, making history in two different ways.
The bee hadn't ended in a tie for 52 years — until last year. Now it's happened for an unprecedented two years running.
Vanya, 13, of Olathe, Kansas, is the first sibling of a past champion to win. Her sister, Kavya, won in 2009.
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Vanya's final word was "scherenschnitte," which means the art of cutting paper into decorative designs. After being informed he'd be the co-champion if he got the next word right, Gokul didn't even bother to ask the definition before spelling "nunatak." For the record, it means a hill or mountain completely surrounded by glacial ice.
Asked what he thought when he got the word, Gokul said, "Me and Vanya were going to be the champions."
Gokul, 14, of Chesterfield, Missouri, finished third last year, behind the two co-champions. He had a gruff on-stage demeanor, asking about the word's roots and definition before chugging through the letters as if he had dinner plans.
"I wasn't nervous," said Gokul, a LeBron James fan who said his priority for after the bee was watching the NBA Finals.
Both are eighth-graders, so it was their last chance. Vanya was competing in the bee for the fifth and final time. Her sister, Kavya — now a sophomore at Columbia University — competed four times, which means the Shivashankar family has made the trip nine of the past 10 years.
Vanya, who also acts and plays the tuba and piano, dedicated her victory to her grandmother.
"Everything takes hard work and passion," Vanya said. "That's definitely what I put in and I know Gokul put that into this endeavor as well."
Proving their superiority over even their toughest competitors, Vanya and Gokul went head-to-head for 10 rounds before the list of 25 championship words was exhausted.
The words included: bouquetière, caudillismo, thamakau, scytale, Bruxellois and pyrrhuloxia. Vanya appeared to struggle only with the Fijian-derived thamaku, which is a type of outrigger canoe.
Fourteen-year-old Cole Shafer-Ray of Norman, Oklahoma, making his first appearance in the finals, finished third. He incorrectly spelled “acritarch.”
In the semifinals, Vanya, 13, spelled “consommé,” a type of clear soup, and “mediobrome,” a process for using oil paints to alter monochrome photographs.
“I’ve been doing spelling for a really long time,” she said earlier Thursday. “It’s one of my biggest passions. But if I won this, it would be a dream come true.”
More than 11 million students took part in local and state spelling bees that sent 285 competitors this week to the Gaylord Resort and Convention Center in suburban Washington.
Before the semifinals began Thursday, Kavya, 19, told Vanya to relax and enjoy the moment.
Kavya, a pre-med student at Columbia, said she has helped her sister a little this week, but not enough to regain her old spelling skills.
“My spelling knowledge has definitely deteriorated since 2009,” she said. “Some of these words, I’m sitting here and I’m like, ‘Oh, gosh, I have no idea how to spell this.’”
Vanya’s routine before she goes on stage in front of several hundred parents and spectators is pretty simple, she said: “I hug my parents, just get some last words of advice and just chill out and enjoy everything.”
Her mom, Sandy Shivashankar, said Vanya spends “an hour or two hours on the weekdays (studying), that’s the maximum … on the weekends a few hours.”
Sandy and Mirle Shivashankar, Vanya’s father, are both software engineers who work for Booz Allen Hamilton, a technology consulting firm. Sandy’s client is the Department of Agriculture; Mirle’s is the Walt Disney Co.
Earlier, Sandy Shivashankar said a win by Vanya would mean a lot for the family, and it would mark the first time two siblings have won the National Spelling Bee.
“She’s following in her sister’s footsteps,” Sandy Shivashankar said. “So we want her to win, but it’s OK (if she doesn’t). We are still proud of her because she made it this far.”
Vanya said her career goal hasn’t changed in the five years since her first national bee.
“When I grow up, I want to be a cardiac surgeon,” she said. “I’ve always been really fascinated by the heart.”
The spelling bee champion gets a $30,000 prize plus an engraved trophy; a $5,000 cash prize from Words With Friends; a $2,500 U.S. savings bond and a reference library from Merriam-Webster; and $1,100 worth of reference works from Encyclopedia Britannica.