Harini Logan was eliminated from the Scripps National Spelling Bee once, then reinstated. She missed four words in a grueling standoff against Vikram Raju, including one that would have given her the title.
In the first-ever lightning-round tiebreaker, Harini finally claimed the trophy.
The 14-year-old eighth-grader from San Antonio, Texas, who competed in the last fully in-person bee three years ago and endured the pandemic to make it back, spelled 22 words correctly during a 90-second spell-off, beating Vikram by seven.
Harini, one of the best-known spellers entering the bee and a crowd favorite for her poise and positivity, wins more than $50,000 in cash and prizes.
Perhaps no champion has ever had more final-round flubs, but Harini was no less deserving.
She is the fifth Scripps champion to be coached by Grace Walters, a former speller, fellow Texan and student at Rice University who is considering bowing out of the coaching business. If so, she will depart on top.
The key moment came during the bee's much-debated multiple-choice vocabulary round, when Harini defined the word “pullulation” as the nesting of mating birds. Scripps said the correct answer was the swarming of bees.
“We did a little sleuthing after you finished, which is what our job is, to make sure we’ve made the right decision,” head judge Mary Brooks said to Harini. “We (did) a little deep dive in that word and actually the answer you gave to that word is considered correct, so we’re going to reinstate you.”
From there, Harini breezed into the finals against Vikram. They each spelled two words correctly. Then Scripps brought out the toughest words of the night.
Both misspelled. Then Vikram missed again and Harini got “sereh” right, putting her one word away from the title. The word was “drimys,” and she got it wrong.
Two more rounds, two more misspelled words by each, and Scripps brought out the podium and buzzer for the lightning round that all the finalists had practiced for in the mostly empty ballroom hours earlier.
Harini was faster and sharper throughout, and the judges' final tally confirmed her victory.
The last fully in-person version of the bee had no tiebreaker and ended in an eight-way tie. The 2020 bee was canceled because of the pandemic, and in 2021 it was mostly virtual, with only 11 finalists gathering in Florida as Zaila Avant-Garde became the first Black American champion.
The changes continued this year with Scripps ending its deal with longtime partner ESPN and producing its own telecast for its networks ION and Bounce, with actor and literacy advocate LeVar Burton as host. The transition was bumpy at times, with long and uneven commercial breaks that broke up the action and audio glitches that exposed the inner workings of the broadcast to the in-person crowd.
The bee itself was leaner, with fewer than half the participants it had in 2019 because of sponsors dropping out and the end of a wild-card program. And spellers had to answer vocabulary questions live on stage for the first time, resulting in several surprising eliminations during the semifinals.
Harini bowing out on a vocabulary word was briefly the biggest shock of all. Then she was back on stage, and at the end, she was still there.
Additional reporting by The Associated Press.