Spelling Bee Co-Champions Hail From Missouri And Kansas, Two States With Bitter Histories

One of the first chants I learned at a University of Missouri football game replaced the traditional — "M-I-Z-Z-O-U" — with something a little more, uh, colorful: "M-I-Z-f*ck-K-U." The f*cked KU being MU's chief rival, the University of Kansas, who, by the way, they weren't playing that particular day. That was my introduction to the Kansas-Missouri Border War, a longstanding athletic match-up that has deep roots. But on Thursday, Kansas and Missouri kids did some spelling of their own, eventually winding up as co-champions of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Could a win for both states finally reconcile this R-I-V-A-L-R-Y?

Gokul Venkatachalam of Chesterfield, Missouri, and Vanya Shivashankar of Olathe, Kansas, spelled their way to a T-I-E (OK, I'll stop). It's the second year in a row there have been two spelling champions, but the contestants' home states make for an interesting co-victory. Kansas points to its inarguable basketball domination as a sign of its superiority. Missouri insists it's better at sports other than basketball, winning seven of the nine face-offs in the Border Showdown Series that took place from 2002 to 2012.

But the Kansas-Missouri rivalry stretches beyond a basketball, football, or athletic prowess in general, permeating daily lives and creating a general resentment toward residents across state lines. Could Venkatachalam and Shivashankar be the young ambassadors that finally end this Civil War-era dispute?

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It's largely a struggle to be on the right side of history. When the Kansas-Nebraska Act was overturned, pro-slavery and free-state settlers rushed to settle in Kansas and Missouri, ultimately determining if they would be a slave state or not. That's when the trouble started.

During the Civil War, Missouri bushwhackers and Kansas jayhawkers traded what were supposed to be derogatory nicknames. Bushwhackers were named for their guerrilla warfare tactic of hiding in bushes and attacking unsuspecting enemies. Jayhawkers described the Kansas Free Staters, the portmanteau referencing a relentless hawk and an annoying jay. Kansas embraced their sobriquet, eventually adopting it as KU's mascot. Missouri? Not so much.

In Bleeding Kansas-era disputes, Jayhawkers would pillage Missouri farms in retaliation for the neighbor state siding with the Confederacy. In response, Confederate guerrilla leader William Quantrill and a group of bushwhackers burned down Lawrence, Kansas, a free-state stronghold — now the location of KU. Missouri, for its part, fought pro-slavery forces in Columbia (MU's home) with its Tigers unit (MU's mascot).

Jesus, who knew school mascots could turn into a history lesson?

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So the school's rivalries run over a century deep. Will the two spellers from the embattled states mend these broken ties? No. Probably not. Kansas and Missouri love nothing more than hating on the other. It's just something they do. But for a brief moment, they can stand united in the fact that they both have really great spellers within their borders. Cherish that, because come August it'll be gone.

But at least maybe Venkatachalam and Shivashankar could teach Mizzou how to spell its own name correctly at football games.

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