May 27, 2014

Kansas City kids draw attention at national spelling bee

Vanya Shivashankar and Kush Sharma join nearly 300 other competitors at the Scripps National Spelling Bee this week. Vanya finished in the top five last year. Kush‘s path to the finals drew international attention when he and his chief competitors used up all the words on their judges’ list.

It looked like an ordinary Memorial Day barbeque, with crowds of kids playing volleyball, eating hot dogs and group dancing to “Gangnam Style.”

But ask the young folks what the real highlight of their day was and you’ll hear about meeting the Merriam-Webster dictionary editor and taping ESPN interview segments.

The 2014 Scripps National Spelling Bee contenders signed each others’ autograph books and took “selfies” together. They’re kids, after all.

But for months they’d boned up on Latin roots, dissected foreign nouns and memorized hundreds of words rarely used in conversation.

Among the 281 who rose word by perfectly spelled word to qualify for the competition that starts Wednesday are two from the Kansas City area who stand out even among this rare, brainy crowd.

Vanya Shivashanker of Olathe cracked the top six last year (after her sister won it all years before). Kush Sharma of Kansas City drew international attention on the way to this year’s nationals when he and Sophia Hoffman exhausted the regional judges’ list of words without a mistake.

Kush, a 13-year-old seventh grader from the Frontier School of Innovation, and Sophia, an 11-year-old from Highland Park Elementary School, turned the Jackson County spell-off in February into an epic two-week marathon that drew admirers of smart kids from around the globe.

Their showdown even spawned a campaign on Twitter urging Scripps officials to #SendThemBoth.

Ultimately, in Round 28 of the rematch, Sophia stumbled on “stifling.” Kush won the spot in the national bee by acing “definition,” drawing laughs from the crowd assembled at the Kansas City Public Library.

Between going to-to-toe in 75 grueling rounds and flying to New York with their families to appear on CNN and Good Morning America, Kush and Sophia formed an unusually close bond.

Sophia will be cheering on her former rival from home. She’s been calling Kush to wish him luck.

“We leave each other voicemails and exchange good wishes,” he said. “She is a very good friend.”

Three months later, Kush arrived in Washington and joined regional champs from all 50 states, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Bahamas.

Kush says his dream is to go to Harvard University and become a cardiac surgeon. Despite his love of words and impressive ability to them, science is his favorite subject.

“My favorite is the longest word in the dictionary,” said Kush, proceeding to spell out pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, barely pausing to take a breath. It’s a lung disease caused by inhaling very fine dust.

Vanya, 12, is making her fourth appearance in the national spell-off. She tied for fifth place last year.

Unlike many of her fellow spellers, who seemed to feel the pressure as they exited a preliminary test on Tuesday, Vanya was all big smiles and confidence. For good reason. She knows her way around the competitive spelling circuit. Her sister, Kavya, was the 2009 national champion.

“Whenever she comes home from college, she practices with me,” said Vanya, who started going to spelling bees with her sister when she was four years old. “It’s so great to have her supporting me in the spelling bee.

“I’m ready. I’m not really nervous. … Just excited.”

On Tuesday the spellers took a computer-based test with 50 spelling and vocabulary questions. On Wednesday, each speller will go on stage for two rounds in front of a nationally televised audience on ESPN more used to celebrating young athletes than young word wizards.

Fifty semifinalists will be selected from those who spelled both words correctly and scored highest on the test. The finals will take place on Thursday evening.

“I feel really confident for the next leg of the race,” Kush said. “The only disadvantage is that we haven’t seen the grand ballroom yet where we’ll be spelling — I’ve heard it’s really majestic and intimidating.”

Kush decided to skip the Memorial Day barbecue and some of the other social events to get some last minute studying done. But there may be a silver lining.

“He works so hard, and he doesn’t waste much time on other games when he is focused,” said his father and coach A.K. Sharma. “I promised him that when he turns sixteen I will get him a sports car.”

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