August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Jacopever. The exotic fish with bulging eyes and reddish color sank Tharein Potuhera’s hopes at the 2016 Scripps National Spelling Bee. But the 14-year-old Potuhera did not let the obscure misspelling dissuade his academic and literary ambitions.

“When I was at the bee, I really wanted to make Omaha and Nebraska proud. I still do, actually,” he says.

The local prodigy advanced from the St. Wenceslaus School spelling bee, to the Archdiocese bee, to his second appearance at regionals, then onward to the national contest in National Harbor, Maryland. He joined 285 elite spellers, culled from the countless nationwide contests last spring.

Potuhera was among the 45 finalists who made it to the finals of the National Spelling Bee, broadcast live on ESPN. Upon correctly spelling “propinquity,” the Omaha teen made national headlines with his dab, (a bow with one arm bent, one arm outstretched) imitating NFL quarterback Cam Newton’s popular touchdown celebration.

After missing Jacopever—the slippery lettered fish of Dutch/Afrikaans origin—Potuhera and his family made a circuitous journey back home to Omaha.

Tharein-Potuhera1“On the way back, we went to Princeton, Yale, Cornell, and also did a tour at Harvard,” says his father, Asthika Potuhera. “After the Harvard tour was done, the director of admissions came and sat down with Tharein away from everyone else and had a chat for about an hour and a half. We were in awe.”

The Harvard administrator was impressed by the young Potuhera’s resume. After all, the Omaha teen published his first book at the age of 12.

His book, Tome Riders: Mr. Custo’s Book, is a historical novel with heavy doses of time travel. Potuhera says he wants to challenge kids to learn history, and improve their vocabularies, while encouraging reading as a leisure pastime.

The family’s homeward trip provided an opportunity for sightseeing at important American history sites that Potuhera mentioned in Tome Riders (but had never himself visited).

With attention freed from spelling bee preparation, Potuhera dove headlong into writing his next book.

“It’s going pretty well; it’s almost done,” Potuhera says. “Both books have the same message to readers, but the second is more concerned with teachers than kids. It’s hard to say if the second book is a prequel or the sequel (because of all the time travel). It’s the teacher as a kid, so technically it’s a prequel.”

The trip home from the National Spelling Bee also featured a stop in Connecticut. Asthika and his wife, Durga, migrated to the U.S. from Sri Lanka in 1998 to study at Eastern Connecticut State University. They came to Omaha seeking a better life. Tharein and his younger brother have always lived here.

Potuhera enjoys the camaraderie of new friends gained from spelling bees. He also maintains social media correspondence with fellow spelling phenoms selected by Kindle for a promotional advertisement last spring.

His experience befriending other top students nationwide has inspired him to foster academic camaraderie among Omaha’s gifted students. In fact, he began working on such a project to obtain his Eagle Scout badge.

“I want to make a club for people who are gifted, and then help them get even better, to help them realize what they want to do, whether it’s a spelling bee, geography bee, or something else,” he says. FamilyGuide

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