Everything seems to be going as planned. It’s Round 6 of the 2004 Scripps National Spelling Bee, with the competition whittled down from 265 spellers to scarcely 30. A new champion is perhaps an hour away from being crowned, and the bee is airing live on ESPN. At the center of the stage, 13-year-old Akshay Buddiga waits in line, then walks to the microphone placed before a panel of bee brass and hundreds of spectators. All he has to do is spell his word—alopecoid—and then he can continue on to the next round. The lights beam down.
For two minutes and 32 seconds, Akshay works his way back and forth through competitive spelling’s go-to questions, the ones the best spellers know to ask no matter how confident they feel, just to rule out any possible surprises. The language of origin? “Greek.” Alternate pronunciations? “I’m just seeing alopecoid.” Part of speech? “Adjective.” He asks for extra time. He looks at his feet.
Then, suddenly, his eyes go wide and he teeters heavily to his left, falling to the ground as the entire room seems to gasp as one.
Buddiga’s story—and Buddiga’s bee—didn’t end there. After a couple of moments on the ground, he shakes his head, stands back up, and shuffles back to the microphone. With his hands in his pockets, he calmly fires off the correct letters that had eluded him for all that time—A-L-O-P-E-C-O-I-D—as if nothing at all had interrupted him, ensuring his place in the spelling pantheon and creating one of the internet’s first viral videos in the process.
“I have had people randomly approach me at a restaurant asking me if I’m the person from the spelling bee,” says Buddiga, now a Miami-based software engineer. “It always comes up in some way. Or if it doesn’t come up then people ask me later why I didn’t tell them.”
On Thursday, a fresh group of the nation’s brightest schoolkids will gather for the finals of the National Spelling Bee, as grown-ups everywhere tune in (and maybe feel a little gratitude that their own spelling aptitude will not be tested on national television). It’s a beloved tradition for spellers and viewers alike. But whether or not you’re the type of person who blocks out space on your calendar for the competition each year, you’ve likely seen Buddiga’s fall—and the bee’s greatest rebound of all time.
Says Jacques Bailly, the National Spelling Bee’s longtime pronouncer, who was the one reading alopecoid to Buddiga that fateful day, “I saw him do that and I was like, ‘Oh my god!’”
In 1994, ESPN broadcast the National Spelling Bee live for the first time. It seemed, at first, to be a curious pairing: “My first thought when they started broadcasting the bee was, ‘Why would anybody care?’” Katie Kerwin McCrimmon, the 1979 bee champion and later an ESPN bee commentator, told Vox in 2018. Even Alex Cameron, then in his 23rd year as the bee’s official pronouncer, professed himself “baffled.” “I can’t quite figure it out,” Cameron told the Orlando Sentinel. “Maybe it’s the agony of defeat.”
But the shift to live ESPN coverage from the bee’s previous, and generally little-noticed, televised iterations, including on NBC and as a taped special on PBS, was in fact the culmination of what McCrimmon described as “a bidding war” among television networks, which had figured out that people did indeed care and that the long-running contest—this year’s competition is the 93rd annual National Spelling Bee—would be a huge ratings draw. As an ESPN spokesperson explained ahead of the network’s first broadcast: The bee “is an intense competition,” much like any of the sports that usually filled its airwaves.
By 2004, the National Spelling Bee had become an obsession for many Americans. Two years earlier, the Oscar-nominated documentary Spellbound hooked audiences with its depiction of dictionary drama. Meanwhile, the internet had just begun to mature into a chattier, more shareable place, dotted with nascent forums, blogs, video streaming sites, and early social media. (Facebook, for one, launched as TheFacebook in early 2004, rapidly expanding from Harvard to college campuses across the country during that first year.) There had been gripping, offbeat, and occasionally silly moments at previous bees—see: 1997 champ Rebecca Sealfon triumphantly delivering her final word, euonym—but there was no online peanut gallery to memorialize them in real time. When Buddiga took a tumble that day and then bounced back up, the conditions were perfect: He became the first National Spelling Bee contestant to go viral—incidentally, a term that the Oxford English Dictionary cites as first appearing in its modern, digital sense that very same year. “I was one of the first viral videos on eBaum’s World,” Buddiga says. “This was before YouTube.”
Buddiga arrived at the bee that year determined to win it all. A few years earlier, he and his brother, Pratyush, had fallen headfirst into spelling. The brothers were competitive, to put it mildly. “I think a lot of the time, because of the Indian dominance in spelling bees”—the last 12 National Spelling Bees have had a champion of South Asian American descent—“people assume that it’s the parents pushing their kids to do this,” says Buddiga, whose parents are from India and who grew up speaking Telugu. “It’s true that there is some self-fulfilling prophecy in the sense that all of these Indians are good at spelling bees, and so other Indian immigrant parents and children see them and they go and do it as well.”
But for the Buddigas, it was more about the challenge itself. After finding that he could ace school spelling tests, Akshay and his brother, who was one grade ahead of Akshay, wondered whether they might be able to go further. “We watched the National Spelling Bee and the National Geography Bee on TV and we thought, ‘Well, hey—why can’t that be us?’”
They flung themselves into it. During their first summer of training, they developed a routine: Their mother, Rekha, would quiz them on words every morning for “four to five hours,” then take them to a bookstore to spend the afternoon reading. “She was very supportive, but it was very much a thing where we chose to do it and were motivated to do it ourselves,” Buddiga says.
The efforts paid off. In 2002, Pratyush, then in seventh grade, won the National Spelling Bee, besting 249 spellers to conclude with the word prospicience—foresight—as Akshay and their parents looked on from the audience. But the following year, which might have been Akshay’s chance to nab his own trophy, he didn’t make the cut for nationals at all, falling to eighth in the qualifying state competition.
As Akshay prepared for eighth grade that summer, a deadline loomed: Eighth grade is the final year of eligibility for contestants in the National Spelling Bee. “My parents asked, ‘Do you still want to continue?’” If he didn’t, he remembers them saying, that would be just fine with them—after so much time drilling himself on cognates, he could focus on something else. “I thought about it and I was like, I have one more year left. I’m going to give it everything and just go for it.”
In the run-up to the 2004 bee, some of the spellers found each other ahead of time, building a loose network on—where else?—AIM. Snigdha Sur, another of that year’s contestants, remembers previous bee winners forming AIM chat rooms, where the upcoming spellers would compete in informal bees proctored by former champs themselves.
Even among this cohort of brainy tweens, Buddiga stood out. “He was one of the front-runners. We all thought he would win,” Sur says. “You already knew who the top spellers were by the time you even landed in Bee Week”—the week of meet-and-greets and museum tours organized by the bee before the contest gets underway in Washington, D.C.—“and he was one of the ones who people were like, ‘Oh, he’s great. He’s really up at the top.’”
On the day of the finals, Buddiga was nervous. Two years earlier, when his brother competed, Akshay had enjoyed the Bee Week festivities, getting to meet and explore with his fellow younger siblings and spellers. But this time, he confined himself to his family’s hotel room, drilling himself on words and origins, eager to use every minute he had to prepare.
He and his brother had received some of their first studying advice from an auspicious source: Jacques Bailly’s mother. Bailly, who became the National Spelling Bee’s official pronouncer in 2003 and as such holds a place of near-divine reverence in the hearts of many aspiring spellers, is himself a bee champion, having won it all in 1980 (winning word: elucubrate). He, like the Buddigas, grew up in Colorado; also like the Buddigas, his mother had stepped in to coach him.
“My mother was an extremely strong-willed and energetic person,” Bailly—in bee circles, always addressed as Dr. Bailly—says. “We figured out that a really good thing to do is to hold a mock spelling bee—just open the dictionary and choose random words and let the speller ask questions like at a real spelling bee, so they can try to figure out how to figure out words. Another really good thing—and this was before the age of digitized dictionaries—was to find all the Hawaiian words you could, and all the German words you could, and all the Dravidian words you could, and the Quechua words—all the words from the different languages of origin. Then it’s pretty easy to figure out that German words are spelled like German words.”
After Bailly won the 1980 bee, his mother, Florence, remained a part of the spelling bee world: first as a coach (including to 1982 champion Molly Dieveney, one of the Baillys’ neighbors), and then as the provider of word lists for what was then called the Rocky Mountain News Spelling Bee, the statewide competition for Colorado and thus a pivotal funnel to the national contest. When the state bee would finish, she had a tradition of holding court with the spellers—congratulating the winner, yes, but also offering advice on how to reach even greater heights.
It was there that she first met the Buddigas. “She told us their story and how [Bailly] trained when he was in school, and gave us tips on what to look for,” Buddiga says. “Originally we were just studying the words. She told us the first year that we competed at the state level, ‘Hey, you guys are really promising spellers, but you should look more into the etymology and the roots of these words.’ That set us on the path to become a lot better fundamentally, versus just memorizing a lot of words.”
Akshay Buddiga thus arrived at the bee not only with his brother’s legacy to live up to, but also the fact that the Dr. Bailly knew who he was. (Just as his mother offered studying tips to competitors in Colorado, Bailly would write back to any spellers who wrote him letters asking for tips. These days, Bailly’s interactions with spellers are significantly more limited out of fairness concerns. “I really felt like I got muzzled by them,” he says of policies put in place by Scripps, which operates the bee. “I understand the reason for it, of course. But it’s kind of a shame.”)
As the 2004 competition headed for its finale, Buddiga was all too aware of what was at stake. “It was the last day—it was make-or-break,” Buddiga says. Caught up in his nerves, he then made a fateful mistake that final morning: “I didn’t eat too much in the morning because I wasn’t really hungry at all.”
So: alopecoid. Alopecoid, alopecoid, alopecoid. Foxlike. Standing onstage, Buddiga was pretty sure he knew it. But what if it was a trick?
“That was the first year they instituted the time limit,” Buddiga says; spellers could now request 30 seconds of bonus time on select words. “So that was an additional thing—there was an actual clock counting down that I could see, which was distracting. So you’re thinking about how to spell it and you’re thinking about how much time you have left. I asked for bonus time, and now it’s really stressful. And that is actually when I locked my knees.”
It’s a common phenomenon: Lock your knees while standing in place and blood will become trapped in your legs, unable to flow back up to the brain and the rest of the body. It doesn’t take long before the inevitable occurs: vision fades. Breath catches. Legs buckle. Syncope: the medical term for fainting.
“Toward the end of my time, it was kind of like my vision was going away,” Buddiga says. That’s why in the video you can see my eyes widening, because I’m like, ‘Wait, why can’t I see anything?’ And that’s when I fainted.”
Bailly remembers watching from the offstage judges’ table as Buddiga fell. “The thing is, we’re sitting behind that huge desk with the hood on it so the spellers can’t see where we are in the dictionary—but now we don’t use a physical dictionary, so it doesn’t matter,” he says. “But there was that behemoth of a desk that was at least 30 feet long. There was no way to get to him.”
“I know he was looking right into the lights, and I don’t think LEDs had come in full force at that point, so I think those were those old television lights that were incredibly hot. They were phenomenally bright. So I think it was kind of like he was looking into the sun and lost his orientation.”
Says Buddiga, “I hit the ground and I was like, ‘What the hell just happened?’ At that point I was like, ugh, I just need to spell this and it doesn’t matter if it’s right or wrong. I’m just going to go and spell it, and if it’s wrong, that’s fine.”
And then, before his fellow spellers could even help him to his feet, he popped back up, hurried to the microphone, and finished the job.
In the Palm Beach Post, sportswriter Dan Moffett compared the feat to the ailing Kirk Gibson hitting a pinch-hit walk-off home run off of Dennis Eckersley in the 1988 World Series. “I thought that would stand as the finest example of toughness under pressure I had seen,” Moffett wrote. “Now, I’m not so sure.”
“To me, that’s what you call grit,” Paige Kimble, then the bee’s executive director, would tell reporters later.
But while the adults in the room and those watching across the country might have been shocked at the proceedings—and that he nailed alopecoid—Buddiga’s fellow contestants, the ones who knew what he was capable of, were anything but. “When he got up and spelled it right, we weren’t as shocked as the adults were, because we were like, ‘Of course he knows that word,’” says Sur. “In the world of spelling bee nerds, that’s a very, very straightforward word, because it has a root of ‘alopecia.’ We didn’t think he fainted because he didn’t know the word.”
Toward the back of the stage, fellow eighth-grader David Tidmarsh couldn’t see the microphone, and so missed Buddiga’s fall. “I heard the gasps,” he recalls.
The competition was paused as Buddiga was ushered offstage to what is usually called the comfort room or—perhaps more frequently—the crying room, where just-eliminated spellers are taken for a hug and a reunion with their parents. There, Buddiga was given a cookie as a fellow speller’s father, who happened to be a doctor, came in to check him out. He was asked whether he wanted to step down from the competition, given what had just transpired. He refused. “I was just in the mindset of let me get back out there,” he says. There wasn’t a TV in the comfort room—he was missing all the action onstage.
And back he went. As the rounds continued, he became the lone speller to have a chair while he considered words. One by one, the other spellers fell away.
This was Tidmarsh’s second time in the National Spelling Bee; the previous year, he’d come in 16th place. He was an unusual contestant: While many elite spellers enlist either family or professional coaches to help them train, he prepared entirely on his own, reading a dictionary cover to cover and copying down the definitions and derivations. “I didn’t go as far as creating a sentence for each one—that was too much work,” he says. In 2003, he’d been eliminated in what he calls a “lawn mower round”: When the powers that be seemingly decide that they need to narrow the pool of contestants and throw in particularly tough words. “I think half the kids got out,” he says. “It was a bloodbath.”
But the following year, everything was clicking. Spelling bee contestants are fond of saying that they’re not competing against each other so much as they are against the dictionary; as anyone who’s ever watched spellers waiting for their turn eagerly spell out each word assigned to their competitors can confirm, they’re hyperaware of their performance in all of the bee, not just with the words they happen to get. In Round 7, Tidmarsh got balancelle, a type of Mediterranean fishing boat. He was at a loss: Would it have an e at the end or not? He used his extra time. He fretted. Finally, with time running out, he guessed correctly—the second e was there.
In the end, it came down to Tidmarsh and Buddiga. “He had some tough words while he was up there,” Tidmarsh remembers of Buddiga’s final rounds. “Scheherazadian! The thing is it’s [derived from] a proper noun and it’s also from a language that’s not English, so it’s a translated word—of course it’s going to be tremendously difficult. But he nailed it.”
The next word Buddiga got was schwarmerei. It got the better of him; Tidmarsh was named champion after spelling two final words, gaminerie and, finally, autochthonous. Buddiga says he had little time to be disappointed at the runner-up honors. While he knew from his brother’s bee that the champion is usually the only one who gets to stick around in the spotlight, he found himself kept onstage with Tidmarsh for the usual post-bee media scrum. The next morning, the bee flew both boys and their families to New York City to make the morning show rounds. People wanted to know about the fainting. What happened? And how in the world did he just pop back up and keep going? “I got invited on Jimmy Kimmel,” Buddiga says.
“I didn’t really realize the significance of the moment because I didn’t actually witness him crashing to the floor,” says Tidmarsh. “When I got back home I watched the replay on ESPN, and that was the moment when I understood what had actually happened and how impressive it was that he’d just gotten right back up. That’s the measure of a true champion.”
“It was probably more difficult for things to spread back then because there were not the channels that we have now—Twitter or Facebook or whatever. So the fact that it did go viral is impressive in and of itself, I think,” Tidmarsh says.
Bailly confesses that he’s never been much for social media; that Buddiga’s tumble and recovery would make for an enduring web artifact seemed unlikely to him, to put it mildly. “It seemed to me like it would be a flash in the pan,” Bailly says. “But then there have been a bunch of those [moments] from the spelling bee: There’s Sardoodledom”—when 2007 speller Kennyi Aouad couldn’t contain his laughter—“there’s iridocyclitis”—when 2015 speller Dev Jaiswal’s attempt became a Vine sensation—“and numnah”—when 2008 speller Sameer Mishra briefly seemed to believe that Bailly was calling him a name.
Indeed: While Buddiga’s might have been the first to break through, compilations and rankings of National Spelling Bee drama and hilarity make for evergreen internet content. “You can see these kids struggling with something that you yourself would struggle with,” says Bailly. “It’s very relatable. And then when something sort of remarkable happens, well, everybody wants to see it.”