Winning the Scripps National Spelling Bee Was Life-Changing for These Champs

Joon Lee@iamjoonleeStaff WriterMay 28, 2018

George Thampy, the 2000 winner.
George Thampy, the 2000 winner.Associated Press

The job offer came down to two people, and George Thampy, the winner of the 2000 Scripps National Spelling Bee, was close to getting it. Even 10 years after the fact, the competition he'd won as a 12-year-old middle schooler from St. Louis was still coming up regularly in Thampy's life. For a long time, he felt defined by the victory. In high school and at Harvard, from which he graduated in 2010, he became known as the "spelling bee guy." Throughout college, he felt the championship had put him in a box in the minds of many.

But that began to change as soon as he graduated, when the head of banking at William Blair and Company looked up and down his resume and came to a decision.

"Let's go with the spelling bee guy," he said.

Something Thampy had resented suddenly became an asset. His frustration turned into appreciation as he gained new perspective on his accomplishment.

"I didn't want to be defined by something I did at the age of 12," Thampy told Bleacher Report. "At Harvard, I was around people who were Olympic-level figure skaters, international math competition winners, and I was just slinking back into the bushes like Homer Simpson does in that one meme. If you peak at 12, your life is probably not what you expected it to be. I don't know if that's what I want to be remembered for, but if it's going to get me my first job out of college, I'll take it."

For many spelling bee champions, the label and attention follow them for years. Sukanya Roy, the 2011 champion and a senior at Brown University, was once approached after a discussion session by a classmate who recognized her from television. Evan O'Dorney, the 2007 champion and a doctoral candidate at Princeton, still gets emails about his CNN interview that went viral after his victory. Kerry Close, the 2006 champion, was asked to spell a random word during a job interview.

The attention comes and goes, but many cite the competition as one of the formative events of their childhoods. Some happened to fall in love with it as they won their local bees before going on to regionals and then nationals. Others spent hours every day studying the dictionary, working through pages for months at a time. They remember the nights of preparation, the tests from parents, the hours spent memorizing the spelling of a South African sheep disease (think: enterotoxemia) or a type of Maltese boat (dghaisa), all in service of a bigger goal.

"You don't get that opportunity early in life to set a tremendous goal and be able to work towards it in little steps, learning perseverance and persistence," Close said. "Being in it five years in a row, there were points I wanted to give up and not try again next year. Being able to come back from that and keep going and keep trying, it was so valuable for life."

Jacques Bailly, the 1980 winner.
Jacques Bailly, the 1980 winner.Uncredited/Associated Press

When Jacques Bailly, now a professor at the University of Vermont, won the Bee in 1980, he experienced what it was like to be in the center of a media frenzy. His face appeared in newspapers across the country, and his name was spoken on radio and television stations all over the world. Today, winners appear on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Good Morning America and other nationally televised programs. Bailly's favorite memory, however, was being asked to participate in a parade in Boyd, Minnesota, a small town near the South Dakota border. The victory, understandably, also put extra attention on his ability to spell in his day-to-day life.

"People really loved finding spelling mistakes in anything I did, from teachers to friends to people I didn't know," Bailly said. "I used to tell them, 'When you win the spelling bee, you get to decide how to spell words. I can't make a mistake anymore.'"

Raga Ramachandran, the 1988 champion and a doctor and professor at the University of California, San Francisco, said she never explicitly told her nine-year-old daughter about her spelling accomplishments. It wasn't until a visit to her parents' house, when her daughter saw her many trophies, that she began to tell her the stories.

A few years later, Ramachandran donated some of her spelling artifacts to the Smithsonian for an exhibit on the Indian diaspora and the spelling bee. Still, only when her daughter spotted mom in a museum glass case did she begin to understand what she had accomplished.

Some feel such a strong connection to the bee that they return as adults. Bailly wrote a letter in 1990 to the National Spelling Bee organizers to volunteer for anything they may need and eventually became an associate pronouncer. In 2003, after the chief pronouncer's death, Bailly took on the position, which he has held ever since.

Bailly, now the chief pronouncer.
Bailly, now the chief pronouncer.Cliff Owen/Associated Press

"People are under the illusion that I know how to pronounce all these words," Bailly said. "I just know how to make these sounds and read the symbols that tell me what sounds to make. The actual pronunciation is not a huge talent. The real talent is the complex nature of the competition, what is appropriate when ... understanding what might be going through the speller's minds ... how all of that fits together."

Thampy also returned to the bee, becoming a judge in 2012, two years after his graduation. He had admired Paige Kimble, the director of the event, and the collection of talented people who came together every year. He enjoys seeing the faces of the competitors light up, word after word, as they spell them correctly.

"I feel like I'm getting the better of the deal now," Thampy said. "It's not just the kids but the families, sponsors and, of course, my colleagues at the bee—they're just really intelligent people. When you meet these kids and see the hard work they put in, it's such a positive feeling about where our country is going."

It's this sentiment, that they're helping the next generation of spellers, that brings Bailly and Thampy back year after year. It's why, Bailly believes, people continue to tune in to the event.

"Some people like watching people throw balls into round iron hoops. ... I've never understood that," Bailly said. "I really enjoy watching the spelling bee every year. It's the best thing that I think is opening young minds to the world."

While some have thrown themselves into the spelling bee, other have taken a back seat. O'Dorney said he did not regularly watch the bee after he participated in the event. For a while, he felt the need to defend his pride and spell every word that came up in the competition. Last year, he watched the event with his mom and a family friend and realized he still knew 90 percent of the words. No longer feeling the need to compete, O'Dorney found himself enjoying the event again.

"The older I get, spelling all of the words really doesn't quite matter," O'Dorney said. "I still spell a lot, but it's not like I'm going to be in a spelling bee any time in the future. Perfection is no longer a noteworthy goal."

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