A Spelling Champion Returns to Crown New Victor

PHOTO: George Thampy, the 2000 National Spelling Bee WinnerMark Bowen/Mark Bowen Media.
George Thampy, the 2000 National Spelling Bee Winner

George Thampy has come full circle. A dozen years ago, Thampy was a slight 12-year-old in oversized glasses who mastered what many have aspired to, but few have achieved. Thampy, standing before his parents, a packed auditorium and a nationwide television audience, won the 2000 Scripps National Spelling Bee.

This year, Thampy is back at the Spelling Bee -- but as a judge, ready to help crown the latest spelling phenom. He knows full well what the contestants on the stage will be going through. Even at the ripe old age of 24, he remembers the "nerve wracking experience," of standing on that stage. He has advice for this year's hopefuls. "Have fun. When it comes your turn, have a clear mind, focus on the word at hand and try your best." He also recommends against last-minute cramming. "I would say… all the preparation you've done at this point is all that you need."

He assured this skeptical reporter that there is no such thing s a spelling "gene," that anyone who reads enough and works hard enough can master spelling. As someone who is not certain how she existed before spell check, that thought is enticing but difficult to believe.

Washington, D.C., loves winners and losers of course, but the political competition is a good deal less civil than you'll find at the Bee, which is being held just outside the nation's capitol at the Gaylord National Resort & Conference Center. For a few days the focus shifts from all politics, all the time, to these exceptional kids.

It's a long road to the national championships for most of the contestants. Thampy first became interested in spelling bees at age 3, when he saw a newspaper clipping about that year's champ. "I told my mom, when I saw the big trophy, that I wanted that trophy. She said, "you have to earn it." By age 5 he had entered his first competition in his hometown of St. Louis, where he made it to the city finals.

His trek to that big trophy continued. Thampy, who was homeschooled, devoted hours each day to his spelling. It paid off. In 1998 he placed 4th in the National Bee, at age 10. In 1999, it was a third place finish and a role in the documentary "Spellbound," about that year's competition. Then in 2000, he was standing on the precipice of victory, when he was given his final word - "demarche." Origin – French. Definition – a move, protest or maneuver, usually by a diplomat. Victory – assured. It was a word he knew well, one of tens of thousands he had studied with his father.

Victory was euphoric. "It's the thing you always dream about," he said, likening it to the final game of the World Series, with two outs, two strikes, bases loaded and "you hit one over the fence."

Thampy applied the lessons from all those years of hard work, when he left his home classroom and began a Christian high school in St. Louis. "I had never taken a formal class in any kind of subject. So I buckled down and said I will take as many honors classes as I can and push myself as far as I can. That's what served me well in the spelling bee and I think in high school."

That academic dedication won him a spot at Harvard, when he majored in chemistry. Then the boy who had mastered spelling, and the student who had mastered chemistry, decided to try something completely different. Thampy got a job in investment banking, and now works for a private equity firm in Chicago.

Thampy remains close with his first love. For the past six national competitions, he has worked as an assistance record keeper, and this year Thampy will take his place as one of the competition's four judges.

Despite the fierce competition between the students, Thampy came away not just with a trophy, but with lifelong friends. "Some of the other spellers I made friends with are close friends with me today, and are some of the smartest people I know," he said. One-time competitors, and now fast friends. In any language, that spells s-u-c-c-e-s-s.