OXON HILL, Md. (AP) — Fifteen months ago, Dev Shah spent a miserable five hours spelling outdoors in chilly, windy, damp conditions at a supersize regional competition in Orlando, Florida, only to fall short of his dream of returning to the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
“Despondent is the right word,” Dev said. “I just didn’t know if I wanted to keep continuing.”
Look at him now.
Soft-spoken but brimming with confidence, Dev asked precise questions about obscure Greek roots, rushed through his second-to-last word and rolled to the National Spelling Bee title Thursday night.
Dev, a 14-year-old from Largo, Florida, first competed at the national bee in 2019, then had his spelling career interrupted. The 2020 bee was canceled because of COVID-19, and in the mostly virtual 2021 bee, he didn’t make it to the in-person finals.
He flexed his knowledge in Wednesday’s early rounds by asking questions that proved he knew every relevant detail the bee’s pronouncers and judges had on their computer screens. And when it was all over, he held the trophy over his head as confetti fell.
Dev’s winning word was “psammophile,” a layup for a speller of his caliber.
“Psammo meaning sand, Greek?” he asked. “Phile, meaning love, Greek?”
Dev soaked up the moment by asking for the word to be used in a sentence, something he described a day earlier as a stalling tactic. Then he put his hands over his face as he was declared the winner.
“I would say I was confident on the outside but inside I was nervous, especially for my winning word — well, like, before. Not during,” he said.
Dev 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. Dev’s older brother, Neil, is a rising junior at Yale.
Deval said his son showed an incredible recall with words starting at age 3, and Dev spent many years in participating in academic competitions staged by the North South Foundation, a nonprofit that provides scholarships to children in India.
Runner-up Charlotte Walsh gave Dev a congratulatory hug.
“I’m so happy for him,” said Charlotte, a 14-year-old from Arlington, Virginia. “I’ve known Dev for many years and I know how much work he’s put into this and I’m so, so glad he won.”
The winner’s haul is more than $50,000 in cash and prizes. When Charlotte returned to the stage later to congratulate Dev again, he reminded her that the runner-up gets $25,000.
“Twenty-five thousand! What? I didn’t know that,” Charlotte said.
The bee began in 1925 and is open to students through the eighth grade. There were 229 kids onstage as it began — and each was a champion many times over, considering that 11 million participated at the school level.
The finalists demonstrated an impressive depth of knowledge as they worked their way through a sometimes diabolical word list chosen by Scripps’ 21-person word panel, which includes five past champions.
This year’s bee proved that the competition can remain entertaining while delving more deeply into the dictionary — especially early in the finals, when Scripps peppered contestants with short but tough words like “traik” (to fall ill, used in Scotland), “carey” (a small to medium-size sea turtle) and “katuka” (a venomous snake of southeastern Asia).
“There are a lot of hard words in the dictionary,” Dev said. “There are realms of the dictionary that the word panelists need to dive into and I think they did a great job of that today.”