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Champion Named in Marathon Spelling Bee

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Kush Sharma, left, high-fives Sophia Hoffman before the continuation of the Jackson County Spelling Bee at the Central Library in Kansas City, Mo., Saturday, March 8, 2014. Two weeks ago, the bee ran out of words after the two eliminated 23 other contestants and went another 47 rounds against each other. Kush later won the competition in the 29th round Saturday.Jill Toyoshiba / AP

He’s the definition of a champion speller.

Thirteen-year-old word wunderkind Kush Sharma won Saturday’s Kansas City-area spelling bee in a final that took 29 rounds — far faster than the previous final that ended unexpectedly when organizers ran out of words and prompted a tie-breaker.

Kush, a seventh-grader, beat out another Missouri middle school student, Sophia Hoffman, to capture the Jackson County Spelling Bee title in a packed Kansas City Public Library. They spelled out 261 words, including “barukhzy,” “muumuu” and “schadenfreude,” before Kush correctly spelled “definition” — but not before, of course, asking for the definition.

“Kush smiled, and the judges were trying not to smile,” head judge Kaite Stover told NBC News after the competition. “Kush rips that one off like it’s nothing, like we knew that he would.”

While Saturday’s 29-round competition was lengthy since bees typically run about 20 rounds, it was nothing compared to the spelling showdown that Kush, of the Frontier School of Innovation, endured two weeks earlier with 11-year-old Sophia, of Highland Park Elementary School.

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Kush Sharma, left, spells "definition" to win the Jackson County Spelling Bee in the 29th round at the Central Library, as Sophia Hoffman looks on, in Kansas City, Mo., Saturday, March 8, 2014. Two weeks ago, the bee ran out of words after the two eliminated 23 other contestants and went another 47 rounds against each other. Jill Toyoshiba / AP

That bee lasted 66 rounds. Judges were forced to turn to the dictionary after they ran out of approved words, and then once they saw the kids might last all day, decided to postpone the marathon bee so that they wouldn’t risk picking an unfair word.

The judges had a list of 230 approved words on Saturday, plus 100 prepared back-ups, Stover said.

“We didn’t want to run out of words this time,” event co-coordinator Mary Olive Thompson told NBC News.

In Saturday’s final round, Sophia flubbed the word “stifling.” Kush — with victory at the tip of his tongue — was given the word “definition.”

As per his practiced routine, Kush asked for the origin of the word, the part of speech and yes — the definition.

“The speller on stage asked for the word definition,” the moderator replied to Kush as an example of the word’s usage, according to Stover.

Kush will proceed to the Scripps National Spelling Bee in May, and administrators from his school expressed their support for their star student.

“We are so very proud and excited for Kush to represent our school in Washington, D.C.,” Sean Isik, Frontier School of Innovation superintendent, told NBC News.

Kush remained “humble” and “poised” during the pressure and attention he received in the past two weeks since the initial competition grabbed national headlines, Isik said. "He has been such a determined and focused student," added Frontier Principal Ilker Yilmaz.

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Frontier School of Innovation superintendent, Ismet Sean Isik, left, and principal, Ilker Yilmaz pose with Kush Sharma after Sharma won the Jackson County Spelling Bee at the Central Library in Kansas City, Mo. Two weeks ago, the bee ran out of words after the Sharma and Sophia Hoffman eliminated 23 other contestants and went another 47 rounds against each other. Jill Toyoshiba / AP

While organizers were proud of Kush, his win meant a defeat for Sophia — and the mood at the library was bittersweet, Thompson said. After so many hours together, “we’ve all gotten to know Kush and Sophia,” Thomson said. “My eyes got a little watery. It was heartbreaking for all the judges.”

But Thomson is hopeful that she will see the same two spelling champs in the finals next year because they’ll both be young enough to compete again.

Stover already has a plan in place should that happen: “We are keeping our extra list of words as a back-up,” she said, “and I’m not letting anyone see it.”

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