A Pinellas County eighth grader needed six rounds Thursday night to become Florida’s first National Spelling Bee winner since 1999.
Dev Shah, who attends Morgan Fitzgerald Middle School in Largo, bested 10 other spellers to take the title, which carries a $50,000 grand prize.
He won with the word “psammophile,” which means an organism that prefers or thrives in sandy soil. If he hadn’t spelled it correctly, the competition would have continued against the other remaining competitor, 14-year-old Charlotte Walsh of Virginia.
Walsh had misspelled the word “daviely,” setting up Shah for the victory.
“If you spell this next word correctly, we will declare you the 2023 National Spelling Bee champion,” official pronouncer Jacques Bailly told Shah.
Shah, 14, needed a brief moment to assure himself of the word’s origin, then spelled it out. Confetti fell and he got a standing ovation after he finished. He hugged Walsh as his parents joined him on the stage.
A few hours later, in a pre-dawn phone interview Friday from Washington, D.C., Shah said he didn’t get any sleep overnight.
“Don’t worry. I’m used to it,” he said. “Some days I would barely sleep to study.”
Instead of going over the words he spelled to win the contest, he went to an after-party.
“We just played kickball and other games,” Shah said. “Enough words for that day.”
As Friday morning rolled around, though, the rising Largo High School freshman had time to reflect on all that he had done, and what was about to come — including a White House visit, an appearance on “Live With Kelly & Mark” and a chance to ring the closing bell on the NASDAQ exchange.
“It feels surreal, but at the same time it’s important. They’re great opportunities,” Shah said. “The main thing is just knowing I accomplished something I worked hard for.”
His preparation for the bee took years. His dad would give him daily lists to review, his tutor would test him on word roots and language patterns. His Morgan Fitzgerald middle school principal created a schoolwide spelling bee at his request, as a way to help him practice.
Shah tied for 51st in the 2019 event, and tied for 76th in 2021, before becoming a finalist this year. He said he never grew overconfident as the field shrunk.
His route through the final round included the words schistorrhachis, chiromancy, aegagrus, rommack, tolsester, bathypitotmeter and finally psammophile.
“I’m not complaining that my last word was easy,” he said. “Definitely some of the words before it were tough.... At the end of the day, most of the times there’s going to be someone better than you. All you can do is focus on yourself and hope things will work out.”
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As the contest came down to Shah and Walsh, he said he couldn’t worry about how Walsh did, because it really was a test of what he knew, and not what she knew.
“The main thing was the spelloff. I didn’t want a spelloff to happen,” he said, noting the 2022 winner had to survive the timed test. “They brought out the buzzer and that kind of scared me.”
Now Shah looks forward to his whirlwind tour of Washington and New York City, and then some time to relax. The last four months have been “really hectic,” after all.
And though the spelling bee is officially behind him — at 14 he’s aged out of the event — he said he’ll never leave it behind. He joins Wendy Guey of West Palm Beach (1996) and Nupur Lala of Tampa (1999) as the only Floridians to win the bee.
Like other past spellers, Shah intends to keep returning to the event and maybe even coach someone, to “keep up the streak.”
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