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W--w! Words just ran out
- Spellbinding feat by kids

Feb. 26: Some are clubbing the epic contest with the 34-point tiebreaker on Centre Court between John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg. Others feel a 20-hour, 269-move chess game in Belgrade between Ivan Nikolic and Goran Arsovic is a better parallel.

But the slip of the boy starring in the new epic has a very Indian secret: “I think as a race, if we decide to do something, we’re focused at it. We don’t trail off.”

That’s Kush Sharma, 13, explaining his role in what began as a spelling contest and soon became a never-ending war of words at the 2014 Jackson County Spelling Bee held at Kansas City this weekend.

The seventh grader from Frontier School of Innovation in Kansas City kept pace with Sophia Hoffman, 11, spelling after spelling for four hours — until the panel of exhausted judges had run out of words and were forced to suspend the contest.

A rematch has been scheduled on March 8. The tiebreaker will decide who will travel to Washington DC for the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which has been dominated by Indian-American winners for the past six years.

Kush, born and brought up in Kansas, is of Punjabi origin. His father Ashok Kumar Sharma from Jalandhar is a retired professor of science and his mother Shama is a doctor who hails from Amritsar.

“I’ve been to India three times, mainly my parents’ hometowns. The last time was early last year,” Kush told The Telegraph today.

Speaking from his school, Kush was more “excited than nervous” about the epic Spelling Bee contest. “I tried not to let my nervousness show by keeping calm. It was very nerve-racking until I got through the first few rounds. Then I knew I’d be good in it.”

By good, he means spelling words like scherzo and fantoccini. The hardest one “came in the 62nd or 63rd roundů a French word and I still can’t remember it because it was so complicatedů it was from the dictionary and we had been given a list to study from, which ran out”.

Kush, who battled it out with Sophia as parents, judges and students watched spellbound, said: “It took a lot of energy, both physically and mentally. By the time we finished I felt drained. The time had been reduced from 40 to 20 seconds and I had been standing there spelling for four hours.”

He is now losing sleep over the rematch. “For the tiebreaker, I’m studying all the way till 11.30 at night, way past bedtime.” His father is keeping him company. Kush plans to “study the etymology of words and learn how a word is built” to expand his vocabulary. “Usually in the small Spelling Bees they provide a list of words but in the Nationals we’ll receive words we don’t know.”

Kush has had his sights set on the National Spelling Bee for some time now. Enough to “move school to one where they hosted Spelling Bees so that I could get to the Nationals”, said Kush, who joined Frontier School of Innovation in 2009.

Ilker Yilmaz, principal of the school, told The Telegraph: “We always encourage our students for the Spelling Bee but the children have to be interested. Kush doesn’t do it as a duty. He and his family have been really eager to be successful at it. From March, we will invite all our teachers to the public library to support Kush with all their resources and I’m sure he’ll beat the other student fairly.”

He might be a wizard in A-to-Z but Kush’s favourite subject in school is science. “I want to enter medical school and become a heart surgeon one day,” said the teen who also likes to “read Shakespeare and play video games like FIFA”.

His favourite words? “Number one for me is paradox and secondů” wait for itů “it’s pfeffernuss”! That means “a highly-spiced cookie made during Christmas”, which “caught my eye in the spell-it list”.

At home, he faces a word challenge of a different kind — mom Shama pushing him to speak Hindi. “She insists on speaking to me in Hindi at home so that I get the hang of it.” And his favourite Hindi words? “Thodi thodi!” he giggles. Words that do not do justice to the epic at Kansas City.


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