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Geography bee win fulfills teen's longtime dream

Wednesday, May 21, 2014
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Third place winner Tuvya Bergson-Michelson, 13, of Hillsborough, Calif., left, second place winner Ameya Mujumdar, 11, of Tampa, Fla, and first place winner Akhil Rekulapelli, 13, of Sterling, Va., hold their awards after competing in the finals of the National Geographic Bee, Wednesday, May 21, 2014, at the National Geographic Society in Washington.
Third place winner Tuvya Bergson-Michelson, 13, of Hillsborough, Calif., left, second place winner Ameya Mujumdar, 11, of Tampa, Fla, and first place winner Akhil Rekulapelli, 13, of Sterling, Va., hold their awards after competing in the finals of the National Geographic Bee, Wednesday, May 21, 2014, at the National Geographic Society in Washington.

— Akhil Rekulapelli has his life mapped out. The 14-year-old wants to attend Stanford University and become a doctor, probably a surgeon.

But he knows it will be a while before he achieves anything as satisfying as his victory Wednesday in the National Geographic Bee, which came after a close call last year and a lifelong interest in nations, cities, cultures and history.

"I probably want to be the head of a department at a hospital, try to graduate at the top of my class, but I think, right now, this is probably the biggest accomplishment I'll ever achieve in probably 20, 30 years," said Akhil, an eighth-grader from Sterling, Virginia. "It'll be a while."

Akhil outlasted nine other finalists and answered all three questions correctly in a one-on-one showdown with his youngest rival, 11-year-old Ameya Mujumdar, of Tampa, Florida.

The decisive question: What African country is building a new capital called Oyala in the rain forest, 65 miles east of the current capital, Bala? The answer: Equatorial Guinea.

Akhil receives a $50,000 scholarship, a trip to the Galapagos Islands with his family and a lifetime membership in the National Geographic Society. The winning scholarship was doubled from last year thanks to a donation from "Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek, who stepped down a year ago as host of the bee. Broadcast journalist Soledad O'Brien hosted this year.

Ameya, the runner-up, wowed the crowd on a tiebreaker question when he was able to recall the Earth's precise diameter at the equator — 7,926 miles. He gets a $25,000 scholarship. Tuvya Bergson-Michelson, of Hillsborough, California, was third and receives a $10,000 scholarship, and Pranit Nanda, of Aurora, Colorado, was fourth and wins $1,000 in cash.

The finals will be broadcast Thursday evening on National Geographic Channel and Nat Geo WILD.

Akhil's father, Prasad Rekulapelli, said his son showed an early affinity for maps — he was able to put together a puzzle of the United States at 18 months old. But after he fell short at the Virginia state bee as a sixth-grader, his parents sought out the services of a coach, Kumar Nandur, who has offered free tutoring to numerous bee contestants, including the 2010 champion.

"He gives me tips and tricks, like how do you stay focused onstage, what are the questions they're going to ask you," Akhil said.

Akhil finished fourth in last year's bee — a lucky result, since the top three finishers are ineligible to return. This year, he was determined to bring home the prize.

"Definitely felt a lot of pressure," he said. "I've done something I've been wanting to do my whole entire life, and I'm so happy it's actually come to reality now."

 
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