May 29, 2014

Fort Worth teen is co-champion of National Spelling Bee

Ansun Sujoe, 13, ties with Sriram Hathwar of New York to become the first co-champions at the bee since 1962.

Ansun Sujoe of Fort Worth gripped one side of the championship trophy at the Scripps National Spelling Bee on Thursday night.

Holding the other side was Sriram Hathwar, 14, of Corning, N.Y., a five-time participant at the national level who finished third last year.

“I was pretty happy when I made the finals, and now I’m even happier that I’m the co-champion,” Sujoe, 13, said as he accepted the trophy.

They are the first co-champions at the bee since 1962, organizers said.

Each will take home $33,000 in cash and his own trophy — no need to share either prize.

It was the highest a Fort Worth-area competitor has placed since Barrie Trinkle in 1973. Samir Patel of Colleyville made it to the nationals five times, placing third in 2005.

The teens were the last of 12 finalists after a 2 1/2-hour televised spell-down.

In the last hour, Sujoe calmly and carefully spelled croquignole, Aeschylean, lotophagi, ctenoid and gemeinschaft.

The only word Sujoe misspelled on stage was antigropelos. But because Hathwar had misspelled a word before that, the competition continued.

Sujoe resumed with hyblaean, augenphilologie, holluschick, paixtle and terreplein.

As he approached the microphone the last time to spell feuilleton, pronouncer Jacques Bailly told him that if he spelled it correctly, the two boys would be named co-champions. The judges had exhausted the list of difficult championship words.

“Oh, whatever!” Sujoe said as he stumbled through the pronunciation.

The lights turned red behind him, and the clock ticked loudly to let Sujoe know that he was running out of time to spell the word. He quickly went through the letters, tracing them on his placard as he always did during the competition.

When the judge said, “Correct,” the appreciative crowd erupted with cheers.

Sujoe said he was happy “sharing the victory with someone else. I was pretty tense, but I really wanted to be co-champion.”

Sujoe just finished the seventh grade at Bethesda Christian School in Fort Worth. He enjoys playing piano, guitar and bassoon when he is not practicing spelling.

If he had lost, he would have been eligible to return one more year to the bee.

Both Sujoe and Hathwar were restrained in their celebrations compared with the demonstrative displays by some other spellers after they successively plowed through challenging words. They stayed calm and quickly returned to their seats after the judge announced, “Correct.”

But as the confetti rained down and their families rushed the stage, the two champions were all smiles and jointly hoisted the trophy above their heads in the ballroom of the suburban Washington hotel and convention center.

Sujoe’s parents sat nervously in the audience, his mother often clutching her forehead and eyes.

They describe Sujoe as a self-motivated and well-focused worker. He has a “God-given talent,” said his mother, Angel Sujoe.

All spellers have their own habits, their own way of getting through each word. For Sujoe, it was tracing the letters on his number card. For almost every word he spelled correctly, there was a hint that he knew the word. He would smile or nod slightly halfway through a definition or while listening to a sentence. Sometimes he nervously laughed.

Sujoe almost always asked whether he was pronouncing his word correctly when he repeated it. He asked so many times that pronouncer Bailly said, “We’re still not offering guarantees, but we’ll certainly tell you if we hear something wrong.”

Because studying from the dictionary can be so tiresome, father Bose Sujoe engineers different visual aids for him to study with. Sujoe said it helps a lot, especially because he studies about two hours every weekday and for most of his weekends.

Sujoe has progressed every year since he began competitive spelling in the third grade. He was the runner-up in his school bee that year.

In fourth grade, he was a regional finalist, in fifth grade a district finalist and by sixth grade, a national competitor.

But this year, he made it to the national semifinals for the first time and then to the finals.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee’s onstage rounds began with 281 spellers Wednesday morning.

“Last year, I wasn’t able to [advance], so I was determined this year that I’d study more,” he said.

Sujoe said that knowing what to expect allowed him to study more effectively and return to the competition with more confidence.

“Last year was kind of an experiment round for us, so I didn’t really do that well,” he said. “But this year, I have a little experience from last year, so I know what to expect.”

Sujoe said that his father helps him learn new words and that his mother and younger sister give him encouragement and determination.

Sujoe stays on friendly terms with his competition, earning and giving high-fives.

“I don’t recognize them as rivals or anything and trying to beat them,” he said. “It’s kind of like a partnership to defeat the words.”

Washington Bureau staff writer Mackenzie Allen contributed to this report.

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