Breakfast of Champions

He scaled an intellectual Everest at age twelve. What's he like at sixteen? Meet George Thampy.

As he succinctly expressed in the film, George Thampy's life belongs to Jesus. But he has grown up enough to realize that not everyone's does -- and that's okay by him.

"In some ways I'm totally different, in some ways I'm the same," he says, seated under his mother's supervisory gaze at a table in the children's section. "I've come to understand the world from a mature point of view, but I still believe in one God and that ethics and morality are really important."

After he successfully spelled emmetropia -- the refractive condition of the eye in which rays of light are focused upon the retina -- en route to victory in the 2000 National Bee, Thampy offered the Post-Dispatch the following explanation for his ability to negotiate the word: "I prayed and God gave me that. God told me the correct spelling."

Director Jeff Blitz had audiences Spellbound
Director Jeff Blitz had audiences Spellbound
When George Thampy arrived at Westminster Christian, his reputation preceded him
Jennifer Silverberg
When George Thampy arrived at Westminster Christian, his reputation preceded him

Three years later, Thampy is a little more circumspect about the role of prayer. "You pray more, you're going to be smarter?" he asks rhetorically. "No."

By age sixteen, most boys have knocked the "girls are gross" hormonal knuckleball into the gap and are rounding second base. This isn't the case with Thampy. "Part of me wants to say they still have cooties, part of me wants to be mature," he reflects. "There's a time in your life when you have a partner -- and I'm not ready to go down that road."

The Thampys came to the United States in 1983 and have lived in St. Louis for eleven years now. George, the third of seven children who range in age from eight to nineteen, was born in Houston, where Bina and her husband, an endocrinologist and physician (also named George), decided to homeschool their children for safety reasons. While Bina served as the children's primary instructor, the couple balanced each other out in terms of left and right brain power, with Dr. Thampy's background in science and math countering Bina's advanced liberal-arts degrees.

The elder George Thampy, an avid fisherman who'd love to cast lines for salmon in Alaska if he only had the time, says he "used to be a good speller." His offspring have taken that gene and run with it; George's younger sister Mallika and older brother Eapen also competed in the National Spelling Bee.

Eapen, now a freshman at the University of Missouri, is the only Thampy child to have attended public school (he graduated from Parkway North). George, Laila and Mallika attend Westminster Christian Academy in Creve Coeur, as they each have since ninth grade, after being homeschooled until that point. While the decision was driven by sheer numbers -- attempting to homeschool all the kids at this time would be unfair to teacher and students alike -- Bina Thampy seems satisfied with the 27-year-old parochial school, which houses 800-plus students in grades seven through twelve and counts among its alumni Michael Gerson, George W. Bush's chief speechwriter.

While his classmates' summers consist of basketball camps and bagging groceries at Dierbergs, George Thampy attended back-to-back three-week workshops for exceptional students at the Universities of Missouri and Kansas and works as a medical assistant at his father's practice at St. Anthony's Medical Center in south county.

Aside from his father, George is the only male working in the endocrinology office on a busy Friday. He has just returned from one of the aforementioned academic forays, and his female co-workers -- including his sister Laila -- are seizing upon every opportunity to tease him about his absence. The human flow in Dr. Thampy's office on this day is best described as "organized chaos." Though the continual comings and goings would seem to indicate confusion, it's evident from the lack of chatter and the looks of assuredness that every pace has its purpose. Insulin vendor Tammy Vlcek observes that this is possible because Dr. Thampy "can do it all." Most comparable endocrinology offices require eight nurses, Vlcek imparts, while Dr. Thampy requires just one nurse and a cast of task-specific role players like George and Laila.

When a five-minute window between patients presents itself, father and son sit down to open the mail and take a few bites of their takeout deli sandwiches. Although the son is the more outgoing of the two, the gentlemen Thampy are essentially physical and intellectual doppelgängers. It comes as no surprise, then, when young George says that he wants to go into medicine, listing Washington University and Harvard as frontrunners in his undergrad sweepstakes. Odds are, though, with the amount of post-baccalaureate schooling the profession requires, young George will play a game of campus hopscotch similar to that of his father, who completed a fellowship at Wash. U. and holds advanced degrees from Kent State and St. Louis University.

Each year some nine million schoolchildren compete in spelling bees nationwide in the hope of landing one of the 250 -- give or take a couple -- annual slots in the 76-year-old Scripps Howard competition. The event has grown so popular that ESPN broadcasts the final round live each year. But unlike baseball, in the bee it's one strike and you're out. Forget that second n in your millennium, partner, and it's better luck next year.

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