Meet The Spellers Who Broke The Bee

After more than five hours, a marathon spelling bee had to be suspended because the organizers ran out of words. Maria Carter of KCUR profiles the two competitors as they prepare to finish the bee.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Here's a twist: A spelling bee that ends in a tie. Well, that's just what happened in Kansas City two weeks ago, but only one person can win. So the two spellers will battle it out once more tomorrow morning. Maria Carter of member station KCUR has the story.

JORDAN HOFFMAN: Spell madeleine.

SOPHIA HOFFMAN: Madeleine. Definition, please?

MARIA CARTER, BYLINE: That's 11-year-old Sophia Hoffman, a wisp of a girl with blonde hair. She's studying today with her older sister, Jordan.

JORDAN: It's a French pastry.

SOPHIA: Madeleine, M-A-D-E-L-E-I-N-E.

JORDAN: Perfect.

CARTER: Jordan placed eighth in the Scripps National Spelling Bee two years ago, but now it's Sophia's turn. She started on the other side of things as a kindergartner feeding her sister words.

SOPHIA: It was always exciting to quiz her, and I thought it might always be exciting to spell the words. And it is.

CARTER: Two weeks ago, that excitement was palpable at the Jackson County Spelling Bee. Sophia and 13-year-old Kush Sharma were in a spell-off, going round after round after round.

SOPHIA: I was a little nervous. But I knew that Kush and I had both really prepared.

CARTER: Well prepared is an understatement. They made it through 66 rounds, 66. Librarian Kaite Stover was the head judge that morning.

KAITE STOVER: I'm the one brave enough to ring the bell when the students misspell a word.

CARTER: But she never had to ring that bell for either Sophia or Kush. Now, you would think 300 words would be enough to whittle the two dozen competitors down to just one, but they weren't. So, Stover and the other judges took a lunch break and started leafing through the dictionary, looking for more words to test them on.

STOVER: It took us an hour to find more words. And we were looking for words that were not completely archaic and uncommon.

CARTER: And that's when it got a little more complicated for these spellers. These were words they hadn't studied, so they had to rely on their knowledge of prefixes, suffixes, and word origins. Kush says he did think the words posed a new challenge.

KUSH SHARMA: But then, like, if you just break it up and, you know, just try to find a pattern in each word, it'll just be simpler.

CARTER: That seems to have worked for Kush. After five and a half hours, organizers had to call it a day.

STOVER: We really did run out of words to give the spellers.

CARTER: Going so many rounds is pretty rare, but it happened twice this year. In DeKalb County, Illinois, two spellers went 74 rounds. They'll also have a rematch tomorrow morning. Both spellers have appeared on CNN and "Good Morning America," which Kush says he finds unsettling.

KUSH: To be honest, like, when the calls all started coming in about it, you know, I was just thinking in my mind, I am not used to this. I really am not used to it.

CARTER: One upside of all the joint media appearances they've done is that it's led to a friendship. When they get to that final word and one of them gets it wrong, Kush says they'll try not to take it personally.

KUSH: I don't think we see at as, oh, I beat her or she beat me, you know, something like that. I think it's like the word beat me.

CARTER: Kush Sharma, Sophia Hoffman, and their families have been lobbying to send both students to the national bee. But Scripps' Spelling Bee officials say that's not going to happen, so they're both preparing for tomorrow's unusual spell-off. For NPR News, I'm Maria Carter in Kansas City.

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