Dev Shah wins 2023 Scripps National Spelling Bee by correctly spelling 'psammophile'

OXON HILL, Md. — The 2023 Scripps National Spelling Bee ended the old-fashioned way.

No spell-off required.

Dev Shah, an eighth-grader from Largo, Florida, spelled "psammophile" correctly to win the 95th national Bee and the $50,000 prize on Thursday. Charlotte Walsh, an eighth-grader from Arlington, Virginia, nearly pulled off the hometown victory, but could not nail "daviely" in the preceding round. Walsh's prize was $25,000 for the second-place finish, while the third-place finishers ― Shradha Rachamreddy and Surya Kapu ― each won $12,500.

"It's surreal," Shah said onstage after confetti fell on his head and he lifted the trophy high above. "I don't know if it's settled in. My legs are still shaking."

Minutes later, still onstage, Shah felt the same way.

“I made a lot of sacrifices these last three months and I’m glad I made them," Shah said. "I’m glad to now get back what I sacrificed.”

Shah cut back on his extracurricular activities to dedicate more time to the dictionary. Some days he would not even go to school, since exams were over. He’d be better off studying, Shah figured. That end-of-year field trip his classmates at Morgan Fitzgerald Middle School went on? No thanks. 

“I knew I had to study,” Shah said. "It paid off."

What was winning word at 2023 Spelling Bee?

Shah's spelling bee-clinching word was "psammophile."

According to Merriam-Webster, a psammophile is "an organism that prefers or thrives in sandy soils or areas."

Other words that Shah correctly spelled during the competition include: bathypitotmeter, tolsester, rommack, aegagrus, schistorrhachis, poliorcetics, Perioeci, exhortation, cocomat and ardoise.

The moment he heard the word, Shah knew he had the Bee in his pocket.

Dev Shah 'extraordinarily mature'

The finals began with 11 spellers left. Two finalists bowed out in the first round of finals, with another exiting in the word-meaning round that followed. The third round featured short words, several containing homonyms, with one more speller bounced. Eliminations picked up in the fourth round of the day, with three more spellers exiting stage left.

Scott Remer, a former speller who coached six of the finalists onstage Thursday, said he began working with Shah about three years ago.

“One of the things that really impresses me about Dev is his perseverance and his commitment," Remer said. "He is extraordinarily mature, self-motivated.”

Last year, Shah stumbled in regionals and didn't make it to the national competition. In 2021, a virtual competition, he was bounced in the third round of preliminaries. The pandemic canceled the 2020 Bee and in 2019, Shah bowed out in the quarterfinals.

At 14 years old, this was his last chance. And he responded by training around-the-clock, including two hours per week with Remer.

“It’s hard as a (middle schooler) to have that delayed gratification,” Remer said.

Over three days at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, Shah displayed poise onstage, asked the proper questions to ascertain as much information he could from the pronouncers and used his "prodigious" command of word stems and roots.

"It became increasingly hard for me to stump him, which is always a good thing," Remer said. "I just really admire him as a person and it’s been a great privilege."

Disappointment for Surya Kapu

Shradha Rachamreddy and Surya Kapu could not make it through the fifth round of the evening and finished tied for third. It was a heartbreaking outcome for Kapu, who finished tied for fifth last year. He was the lone repeat finalist from the previous year and received a standing ovation from the crowd. 

Due to time constraints of a two-hour broadcast window and the eight-way tie for the title in 2019, Scripps two years ago invented a "spell-off" ― a 90-second window for competitors to spell as many words as they can ― that debuted in last year's championship, won by Harini Logan.

That didn't stop Bee organizers from bringing out the buzzers in anticipation. With a new prop in her way, Walsh correctly spelled "collembolous" to secure her spot among the final two. A half hour after Shah won, she returned to the stage to offer a congratulatory hug.

“I don’t feel like I was competing against anyone," Shah said. "In between rounds, and even during rounds, we would congratulate each other. That’s what separates the Spelling Bee from other competitions. Everyone’s in there together.”

Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.

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