How Do You Spell Success?

The discipline spellers learn early helps them later in life.

May 31, 2007— -- What are the chances that you'll win the Scripps National Spelling Bee and become an unemployed drug-addicted criminal?

"From what we know," said Paige Kimble, the Bee's director and the 1981 champ, "not good."

Though Scripps, the media company that runs the Bee, does not track all its winners through life, "of those we know about, you'll see many are doctors, scientists, lawyers and writers," she said.

"We have a sense and anecdotal evidence … [that] our winners generally become successful, though not necessarily famous."

The winners on whom Scripps has kept tabs include a host of Ivy League graduates, physicians, business executives, a former NASA areospace engineer, a professor of pediatrics, and a 93-year-old electrical engineer who in 1925 took home his $500 prize in gold pieces.

Several former champs have written books about spelling, comment for television about the Bee and work as Bee staffers.

One young speller who has met with a certain modicum of fame is George Thampy. Now 19 and a soon-to-be sophomore at Harvard, Thampy was featured in "Spellbound," a documentary film that profiled eight competitors preparing and competing in the 1999 national Bee.

"Spelling takes a lot of hard work," said Thampy, who plans to major in chemistry or English and has his eye on medical school.

That hard work -- with its attendant lessons in persistence, discipline and dedication -- pays dividends later in life, he and other former spelling champs told ABC News in the lead up to the 80th Scripps National Spelling Bee finals to be aired on ABC tomorrow night.

Though he came up short in 1999, during his second trip to the finals, he bested competitors from across the country and around the English-speaking world the following year. His winning word in 2000 was "demarche," which means a formal protest, usually issued by a diplomat.

In "Spellbound," Thampy comes off as a precocious 11-year-old dedicated to his studies and devout in his religion. A first- generation American, and the son of Indian immigrants, Thampy said he lost three times at local competitions and twice at the nationals before winning in 2000.

Thampy remains aspirational; he has set his eyes on new heights and turned a work ethic honed in the crucible of competitive spelling toward other pursuits.

"I am constantly striving, never looking back and never looking down. There are always new mountains to climb. The ones you have scaled are dwarfed by the ones above you. I don't look back at the old mountain, but I realize I have the skills and tools to move forward," Thampy said from the sidelines of this year's Bee.

This summer he will work at a radio station in his hometown and participate in a business leadership program at Harvard.

For a young man, Thampy comes off as particularly self-aware. He knows that his story -- son of immigrant parents makes good at spelling competition and goes to Harvard -- is a classic version of the American dream.

"I was born in America and when I was growing up I was American as can-be, minus the skin and the accent. I played sandlot baseball and joined Boy Scouts and felt that those activities tapped into American culture. Spelling was always something I enjoyed doing. I didn't do it because I thought it would lead me anywhere. It is an American tradition that stresses diligence and studying," he said.

Since ESPN began televising it in 1990s, the the Bee has only become more competitive and stressful, said Barrie Trinkle, the 1973 winner -- she won with "vouchsafe" -- and is one of the writers of the competition word list.

Television has made finalists into semi-celebrities, with trips to the late-night talk shows and photos on the front pages of newspapers. Rebecca Sealfon, the 1997 winner known for the way she distorted her face while thinking and raucously shouting each letter of her winning word "euonym," graduated from Princeton and is earning her Ph.D. at Duke.

Trinkle the '73 champ said the "main lesson" she took from preparing for the Bee "is that you get out of it what you put into it."

She should know. After winning she went on to be an editor at Oh, yeah, and before that, she was an aerospace engineer at NASA.

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