11-Year-Old Wins National Geographic Bee

Rebecca Carroll
for National Geographic News
May 21, 2008
Cochabamba is the third largest urban area of what country?

Eleven-year-old Akshay Rajagopal knew, and with the answer—Bolivia—he won the 20th annual National Geographic Bee today in Washington, D.C.

The national finals tested the geographic knowledge of 55 U.S. students in fourth through eighth grade—each contestant was already a winner at the state or territory level. Each finalist is allowed one wrong answer.

(Quiz yourself with the questions from the bee's championship round.)

"I think I just got lucky," said the Lincoln, Nebraska sixth grader, who said after the contest that he was confident of all his answers except one.

Asked what country lies east of Iran and holds the city of Balkh—the supposed birthplace of the ancient 13th-century Persian poet Rumi—Rajagopal wasn't sure.

With magic marker, he wrote "Afghanistan" on his card. His guess was right.

"For the second year in a row, ladies and gentleman, the National Geographic Bee champion is a student who has not missed one question," said the event's moderator, Jeopardy! quiz show host Alex Trebek. "Akshay, way to go!"

(Watch video of the final tense minutes of the bee.)

Narrowing the Field

Nearly five million students took part in National Geographic Bee state and territory competitions this year before the 55 finalists came to National Geographic Society headquarters this week.

(The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)

Rajagopal, whose geography talents became apparent after he got his first atlas at the age of five, found his way to the top of this elite group by studying geography DVDs and reference books.

"He just realized he could remember all these names of countries and capitals," said homemaker Suchitra Rajagopal, Akshay's mother.

"It was just a hobby until this year," when he began studying for the competition, she added.

"I just feel great for him," said Akshay's father, Vijay Rajagopal, an engineer who said he told his son not to worry too much about winning because he could always come back next year.

Now, though, Akshay can't come back.

As the Bee champion—and winner of a $25,000 college scholarship and a lifetime membership in the National Geographic Society—he's ineligible to participate in the national competition again.

The Lux Middle School student is, however, eligible to compete for a spot on the geography team that will represent the United States in the biennial National Geographic World Championship in 2009.


Maps, on some level, seem to speak to second-place winner Hunter Blesdoe, 13, said his father, Ken.

"When he's looking at a map—it's giving him information that I know I don't get," the elder Blesdoe, a physical education teacher, said.

That may be one reason Hunter was also able to get so many tough questions right. He correctly answered "Afghanistan" when asked the question about Balkh—half of the ten finalists missed that one.

Blesdoe also correctly named Barcelona as the Catalonian city that was a center of worker and student resistance during Francisco Franco's dictatorship in Spain.

The Alabama eighth grader won a $15,000 scholarship.

William Lee, 13, an eighth grader at Joyce Middle School in Woburn, Massachusetts, won a $10,000 scholarship for coming in third.

Slipping in this year's sly reference to Canada—an informal National Geographic Bee tradition in honor of Trebek, a Canada native—Lee mentioned that many of the coins in his coin collection are Canadian.

Boys, Big Kids, and Kookaburras

There was only one girl among the 55 competitors in Washington this year.

Eighth grader Autumn Hughes, 14, a Wheat Ridge, Colorado, homeschooler, was eliminated in a tiebreaker Tuesday, narrowly missing a slot among the top ten finalists.

Last year, Redmond, Washington State's Caitlin Snaring became the second girl to win the National Geographic Bee since it began in 1989.

This year, with the exception of 11-year-old winner Rajagopal, the ten finalists were all aged 13 or 14.

Trebek asked Rajagopal to stand before the audience next to his 13-year-old neighbor, Lee, emphasizing the size difference a few years can make at that age.

"Not only is he the youngest, he's also the shortest," Trebek said at the beginning of the final rounds.

This year's questions included slides, graphs, and even a live laughing kookaburra bird. The species is native to the Australian mainland but migrated south to the island of Tasmania—a location everyone participating correctly identified.

Holding his giant check and posing for photographers after the contest, Rajagopal considered his surroundings for a moment before looking up and saying: "It does feel like I'm really special today."

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.