Dev Shah, a 14-year-old boy from Largo, Florida, won the 2023 Scripps National Spelling Bee on Thursday, nailing the word “psammophile,” meaning an organism that thrives in sandy soils, in the 15th round of the contest’s finals.
He edged out fellow eighth-grader Charlotte Walsh, 14, from Arlington, Virginia, who finished in second place after she misspelled “daviely,” a Scottish-rooted word for listlessly, in the 14th round.
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Shah, a student at Morgan Fitzgerald Middle School, had correctly, and swiftly, spelled “bathypitotmeter” in the 14th round, but under spelling bee rules needed to land one more word to be declared winner.
Shah, who was crowned champion in a hail of confetti before being joined on stage by his parents and other relatives, takes home $50,000 cash from EW Scripps Co, the bee’s sponsor, plus further monetary prizes and reference works from Encyclopedia Britannica and Merriam-Webster.
The Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary is the official dictionary of the competition.
Shah had first competed at the national bee in 2019, then had his spelling career interrupted. The 2020 bee was cancelled because of COVID-19, and in the mostly virtual 2021 bee, he did not make it to the in-person finals, held in his home state on ESPN’s campus at Walt Disney World.
Then came the disaster of last year, when he was forced to compete in the Orlando region because his previous regional sponsor did not come back after the pandemic. He spent a miserable five hours spelling outdoors in chilly, windy, damp conditions at a supersize regional competition, only to fall short of returning to the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
“It took me four months to get him back on track because he was quite a bit disturbed and he didn’t want to do it,” said Shah’s mother, Nilam Shah.
When he decided to try again, he added an exercise routine to help sharpen his focus and lost about 15 pounds, she said.
Shah, whose hobbies include reading, tennis, playing the cello and solving math problems, tied for 51st place in the 2019 edition of the spelling bee, and tied for 76th place in 2021.
He was among 11 contestants, aged 11 to 14, who advanced to the finals of this year’s event after beating out a field of 220 other competitors participating in the three-day contest, held in National Harbor, Maryland, just outside of Washington, DC.
“He appreciated that this is a journey, which sounds very trite but is really quite true,” said Shah’s coach, Scott Remer, a former speller and study guide author. “I think the thing that distinguishes the very best spellers from the ones that end up not really leaving their mark is actually just grit.”
Shah is the 22nd champion in the past 24 years with South Asian heritage. His father, Deval, a software engineer, immigrated to the United States from India 29 years ago to get his master’s degree in electrical engineering.
This year’s total field comprised 94 girls, 134 boys and two spellers who identify as nonbinary. One competitor did not specify a gender.
The Bee is televised live. The excitement is heightened by TV commentators who describe the action as contestants rack their brains to come up with the correct spellings for often obscure words.
Last year, Harini Logan, 14, from San Antonio, Texas, correctly spelled 22 words during a 90-second spell-off to claim the top prize. It was the first time a spell-off decided the prestigious competition, which began in 1925.