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Tampa Bay Times

Pinellas teen who won National Spelling Bee comes home to Tampa Bay

By Esmé Fox,

Dev Shah, 14, from Largo, arrives at the Tampa International Airport on Tuesday after winning the Scripps National Spelling Bee outside of Washington, D.C. [ CHLOE TROFATTER | Staff ]

A welcoming committee waited patiently at the Tampa International Airport to surprise 14-year-old National Spelling Bee Champion Dev Shah. The crowd gathered around a banner with the word “psammophile,” the noun Shah spelled correctly for the win. The Largo teen is the first winner from Florida since 1999.

When Shah finally got off the airport shuttle Tuesday evening, the airport loudspeaker announced his arrival while the crowd erupted into cheers. Shah broke into a winning grin, moving through the sea of people to greet friends and former teachers.

Shah, who will be a freshman at Largo High School in the fall, flew in from New York City, where he rang the closing bell on the NASDAQ exchange and made an appearance on “Live with Kelly & Mark.” After his victory lap, Shah said he is happy to be home.
Dev Shah, 14, from Largo arrives with his family at the Tampa Bay International Airport on Tuesday, June 6, 2023 after winning the National Spelling Bee in National Harbor, Md. [ CHLOE TROFATTER | Staff ]

“Some days were good, some days were bad,” Shah said of the preparation process. “But all that matters is I’m here now.”

The night Shah won the championship, family friend Pratibha Desai immediately ordered the banner to surprise him at the airport. “That was my gut reaction,” Desai said. “I want him to feel very welcome and to understand how passionate we are about his commitment to excellence.”

Carolina Tave, a fourth grade teacher at Ridgecrest Elementary who sponsored Shah through the Science Olympiad Club, helped organize the surprise welcome. Tave cites Shah’s signature deep breath before each answer as his key to success — a marker of his confidence and preparedness.

“In his mind, he was a champion,” Tave said. “That’s why he won.”
An emotional crowd welcomes Dev Shah at the Tampa Bay International Airport on Tuesday, June 6, 2023 after he won the National Spelling Bee in National Harbor, Md. [ CHLOE TROFATTER | Staff ]

Shari Dirks, his third grade math teacher, sported a Gryffindor T-shirt in honor of Shah, who was sorted into the Hogwarts house in her class. Dirks felt tears come on as soon as Shah won, remembering when Shah tied for 76th place in the 2021 National Spelling Bee championship.

“The fact that he picks himself up,” said Pat Choi, Shah’s third grade English language arts teacher. “That’s what we’re really proud of.”

Morgan Fitzgerald Middle School Principal Ija Hawthorne also came to support the newly crowned champion. Hawthorne credits Shah with spearheading a school-wide spelling bee competition. “We’ve been holding it ever since.”

Shah comes home with $50,000, a commemorative medal and the Scripps Cup — the official championship trophy of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Shah also won a $2,500 cash prize and reference library from Merriam-Webster, $400 of reference works from Encyclopedia Britannica and $2,000 from Scholastic “to be donated to the school of the Champion’s choice in their honor,” according to Scripps.

Other than seeing friends, Shah said he is most interested in sleeping when he gets home.

“I haven’t gotten much of it lately,” the champion said.

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