75 rounds later, KC seventh-grader wins Jackson County Spelling Bee

03/08/2014 3:32 PM

03/09/2014 7:31 AM

At the end came a moment that everyone watched, but only two could really share.

Rightfully so for Kush Sharma and Sophia Hoffman. These two went 75 rounds alone, spread over two weeks, after everyone else fell out of the Jackson County Spelling Bee.

On Feb. 22, the competition was suspended when the judges ran out of words.

Coming back Saturday to pick up their marathon bout, Sophia, 11, a Lee’s Summit fifth-grader, misspelled her word — “stifling” — in Round 28.

After an appeal, a judges’ huddling to review a recording and then a break, Kush, 13, a seventh-grader from Kansas City, stepped to the microphone in the bone quiet of Helzberg Auditorium at the Kansas City Central Library.

He needed one word to win it all and a trip to the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. As soon as the pronouncer gave it to him, everyone knew it was over. But then a woman at the officials’ table broke in to say her audio equipment had stopped working. A technician hurried over.

It was during that little break that Kush, standing alone, turned to Sophia sitting behind him. They locked eyes, tears in hers, and she gave him a little smile.

When he turned back, a bit of woe crowded the excitement on his face. It had all been so good, so fun, so special and so long, and he was about to end it.

After nailing earlier killer words like “hemerocallis” and “jacamar,” Kush spelled “definition” — after first, of course, asking for its definition. Behind him, Sophia was first to clap, happy for the friend she got to know as they passed to the microphone back and forth through 75 rounds.

Kush, a polite young man, patiently gave the moderator a handshake before hurriedly going to Sophia. They hugged.

Minutes later, Sophia said, “It was a great experience, and I’m happy for Kush.” She added she would be back next year.

News outlets all over the country and world had picked up on these two. They had traded “madeleine” for “scherzo,” “mukhtar” for “bobbejaan,” and on and on for more than five hours. They and their families traveled to New York on ABC’s dime to appear on “Good Morning America,” a show widely watched that day at Sophia’s Highland Park Elementary in Lee’s Summit and Kush’s Frontier School of Innovation in Kansas City.

Scripps officials rejected a groundswell push on Twitter to “Send Them Both!”

Both Kush and Sophia crammed for Saturday’s finale. Sophia got help from her sister, Jordan, 15, who won the bee three times from 2010 and 2012.

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 the guy who took Jay Leno’s place,” 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.

Neither skipped a beat until Sophia’s miss in Round 28. During the ensuing break, she gathered with her family. Kush saw Sophia crying.

He walked over and bent to her.

“Stop crying, or you’re going to make me cry,” he told her.

She looked up and laughed.

Next year, they will probably see each other again.

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