March 8, 2014
KANSAS CITY, Missouri – Champion.
That wasn’t Kush Sharma’s winning word. It’s what he became after 95 rounds in the Jackson County Spelling Bee. What started on February 22, finally came to a conclusion on March 8, when Sharma, 13, of northeast Kansas City, and Sophia Hoffman, 11, of Lee’s Summit, faced-off in 29 additional rounds before completing the county’s spelling bee.
Sharma is a student at Frontier School of Innovation in the East Bottoms Executive Park.
In round 29, Sharma received his winning word: definition. Moments before, Hoffman misspelled “stifling” after apparently mishearing the pronunciation. If Sharma spelled his word correctly, he would become champion. After asking for the definition, origin and confirming it is a noun, Sharma looked at his friend, and competitor, the two exchanged a brief smile and correctly spelled his word. Now, he heads to Washington, D.C. for the 2014 Scripps National Bee May 25–31, 2014.
After the competition, Sharma and Hoffman said they studied as much as they could to prepare for the event.
“I studied the dictionary, even” Sharma said. “I probably studied more [for this] than ever before.”
He added having a great competitor like Hoffman pushed him for their competition, while also preparing him for the national competition.
“It goes to show what kind of competition I’ll face in the nationals,” Sharma said.
Although she admitted she was sad when she misspelled her word, Hoffman said she was happy and excited for her new friend to win the competition.
“I was sad when she got her word wrong,” Sharma said.
The Jackson County Spelling Bee entered a two-week break on Feb. 22, when the two competitors competed until no more words were available. The two competed in Helzberg Auditorium in front of family and friends at the Kansas City Library’s Central Branch. The library also fed a live video feed into the main hall, where hundreds more watched.
“It’s been fun getting to know him [over the past two weeks],” Hoffman said.
On February 21, the Sharma and Hoffman didn’t even know each other. Through all the words spelled over the 95 rounds and 6 hours of competition, a friendship grew. When national media, such as “Good Morning America” and CNN, invited the two out to New York for interviews, the pair would travel together. Sharma said that’s when the bonding began. Kush’s father, Ak Sharma, said the two would eat together and stayed in the same hotel.
“They became family,” Ak said.
Hoffman said during the first portion of the spelling bee, the two bonded. It was Hoffman’s attitude and demeanor, Sharma said, that helped turn these competitors into friends.
“She didn’t seem like the aggressive people [that are only in it to win],” Sharma said. “There’s so much hatred in the world anyway, there’s not reason to do that here. Another thing was, it was just me and her so why not become friends.”
In the moments leading up to Saturday’s competition, the two were talking and joking around. Right before the spelling bee started, Hoffman and Sharma even showed the crowd their secret handshake. Sharma said the handshake – which involved foot tapping and high fives – helped the two relax and symbolized friendship.
“We were getting ready for Good Morning America and we were thinking we should have something special to do,” Hoffman said.
“I just said we should create a handshake to show that we’re not being friends for the camera,” Sharma said. “I think that’s what a lot of people thought. That we just want to get attention.”
After the competition, Sharma and Hoffman embraced. The two, exhausted from spelling and media interviews, said it will be nice to relax now.
“It was nice to have a friend up there,” Hoffman said.
While the two children supported each other, they also received a lot of support from family, friends and school officials.
Hoffman’s parents, Mark and Ruth, said they were very proud of the sportsmanship and hard work the two children put forth for the competition.
Ilker Yilmaz, principal of the Frontier School of Innovation, said he and the whole school were proud of Sharma and Hoffman. Although the two competitors can’t both go to nationals, something Yilmaz thinks should happen since they broke records, he’s glad to see Sharma head to Washington D.C.
“I believe he’ll win the nationals,” Yilmaz said. “It’s great to see so much support for the spelling bee.”
At the end of the day, both of Kush’s parents were especially proud of their son.
“I’m so proud of him,” Dr. Shama Sharma, Kush’s mother, said. “Both kids were so good.”