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Indian-origin student wins spelling bee after epic 95 rounds

March 09, 2014 13:22 IST

A 13-year old Indian-origin boy has emerged as the winner of a spelling bee contest in the United States in an epic verbal duel that lasted a total of 95 rounds, after judges ran out of words in a previous marathon round held last month. Kush Sharma, a seventh-grader at Frontier School of Innovation spelled out "definition" to clinch the Jackson County Spelling Bee title in Missouri, and a berth in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington in May.

Saturday's 29-round competition was lengthy in comparison to other spelling bees which typically run for about 20 rounds. Sharma won the title in two installments after the judges ran out of words in a previous round held on February 22.

Sharma beat fifth-grader Sophia Hoffman, 11, of Highland Park Elementary to win Missouri county's annual bee contest on Saturday, before a packed Kansas City Public Library.

Hoffman missed out after she misspelt the word 'stifling'.

Between the two, they spelt over 260 words, including 'barukhzy', 'muumuu', 'hemerocallis', 'jacamar' and 'schadenfreude' in 28 rounds with Sharma clinching the title after correctly spelling the word 'definition' in the 29th round, NBC News reported.

As per his practiced routine, Sharma asked for the origin of the word, the part of speech and the definition of the word. "The speller on stage asked for the word definition," the moderator replied to Sharma as an example of the word's usage. "Kush smiled, and the judges were trying not to smile," head judge Kaite Stover told NBC News after the competition. "Kush rips that one off like it's nothing, like we knew that he would."

Hoffman's parents had appealed to the judges, believing that the pronunciation of "stifling" might have confused her. The judges reviewed a recording of the  proceedings and found nothing was wrong. As Sharma spelt the word correctly, Hoffman was first to clap for her friend. He patiently gave the moderator a handshake before hurriedly going to Hoffman and hugging her.

"It was a great experience and I'm happy for Kush," Hoffman said adding that she would be back next year.

The duo returned to compete for the coveted title after the previous round ended in a tie with both of them getting every word right until the judges were left exhausted with words. Last month, Sharma and Hoffman competed for 66 rounds before the judges were forced to turn to the dictionary after they ran out of approved words.

Once the judges saw that the kids might last all day, they decided to postpone the marathon bee so that they would not risk picking an unfair word.

The two had eliminated 23 other contestants in the February competition. The judges had a list of 230 approved words for Saturday’s competition, and another 100 prepared back-ups, Stover said. "We didn't want to run out of words this time," event co-coordinator Mary Olive Thompson said. Indian American students are regular participants and winners in various spelling bee competitions in the US.

 

Thirteen-year-old Arvind Mahankali was crowned champion of the 86th Scripps National Spelling Bee last year. Mahankali, whose family is originally from  Hyderabad, was the sixth consecutive Indian-American winner of the national title and the 11th in the past 15 years.

Both the youngsters had crammed for Saturday’s finale, with Hoffman getting help from her sister, Jordan, 15, who won the bee three times from 2010 and 2012. Sharma's father A K Sharma worried his son didn't get enough sleep the night before.

"I told him he was supposed to be in bed at 10, but he wanted to stay up and watch Jimmy Fallon," Sharma said. Because of the unprecedented attention for the showdown, a large projection screen on the library's main floor enabled viewing for an overflow crowd of more than a hundred.

 

The superintendent at Sharma's school Sean Isik said they were "very proud and excited" that their student would represent the school in Washington for the finals. Kush remained "humble" and "poised" during the pressure and attention he received in the past two weeks since the initial competition grabbed national headlines, Isik said.

"He has been such a determined and focused student," added Frontier Principal Ilker Yilmaz. Thompson said while the organisers were proud of Sharma, the win meant a defeat for Hoffman and the mood at the library was bittersweet. After so many hours together, "we've all gotten to know Kush and Sophia," Thomson said. "My eyes got a little watery. It was heartbreaking for all the judges."

But Thomson is hopeful that she will see the same two spelling champs in the finals next year because they'll both be young enough to compete again. Stover already has a plan in place should that happen: "We are keeping our extra list of words as a back-up," she said, "and I'm not letting anyone see it.

The Jackson County bee isn't the only one that went to overtime to determine a winner. The spelling contest in DeKalb County, Illinois, was also postponed until Sunday, after two contestants -- Matthew Rogers and Keith Mokry -- went more than three hours and 74 rounds without a winner being declared, the DeKalb Daily Chronicle reported.

Yoshita Singh in New York
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