Alek Venturino, an eighth-grader at Charlotte Wood Middle School, will represent California at the National Geographic Bee in Washington, D.C. on May 25 and 26.
The 14-year-old geography whiz came first out of 102 contestants in the California State Finals at Cosumnes River College in Sacramento on April 8.
After making his way through the preliminary rounds, Venturino trumped second-place winner Danny Kim of Cupertino by correctly answering the question: "Name the largest city on the island of Hispaniola." The answer: Santo Domingo.
"I had a stronger feeling that it was Santo Domingo, and not Port-au-Prince," said Venturino. "But I was on the edge of my seat until they announced the correct answer."
The state champ said he couldn't believe he had won.
"It took me several hours to believe it," said Venturino. "There was a swarm of paparazzi who wanted to take my picture and interview me, including a TV news reporter."
This is the third year in a row that Venturino has competed in the geography bee, and each time he's made it to the state level. He's been climbing the ladder of success—the first year he came in 33rd, last year he was 5th and this year he won the title as well as $100 and a copy of the National Geographic Atlas of the World.
The bee starts off at the school level. The winners from each school then take a written test and the top 100 go on to the state contest. The state champ then moves on to the national competition. This year, more than 5 million students from 15,000 schools across the country competed in the bee.
Venturino says he's always liked geography, but wasn't really interested in competition.
"When I was 5-years-old, I got an interactive globe for my birthday," says Venturino. "I learned a lot and it got me hooked. After that, I'd get road maps for birthdays— I'd open them up and just stare at them."
It was his sixth-grade teacher, Cris Barry, who pushed him to compete in his first bee, says Charlotte Wood principal Sandy Budde.
"Cris noticed a spark in Alek and pushed him to try out for the geography bee," says Budde.
The school principal also credits Venturino's family and Charlotte Wood teacher Kim McConnell, who organizes the school geography bee every year.
"Alek is talented and motivated, but without all those pieces, he wouldn't be where he is right now," says Budde. "That's how education is supposed to work—you see the sparks in kids and you nurture them."
If Venturino wins the National Geographic Bee, he would be the first Californian ever to do so. He thinks he has a pretty good chance, but knowing the answers can also be in the luck of the draw.
"To some extent it's skill, but I keep my fingers crossed the whole time," says Venturino.
The lucky winner of the National Geographic Bee, which will be hosted by Jeopardy's Alex Trebek, will receive $25,000 in scholarship money, as well as an all-expenses-paid trip to the Galapagos Islands with a parent or guardian. Second- and third-place winners receive $15,000 and $10,000 scholarships respectively.
So how is Venturino getting ready for the big competition in D.C.?
"Google Earth is a huge tool, it's like traveling without going there," says Venturino.
He says he also studies atlases and maps and is careful to listen to the clues he gets during the competition. But he likes to keep things in perspective.
"If you know the answer to every question, you basically have no life," says Venturino, who has heard of competitors who study up to eight hours per day.
Venturino says he's also very involved in his Boy Scout troop and likes to go hiking and camping. And he doesn't waste a lot of time watching TV.
"I'll watch the Discovery, History or Military channels," he says, "but I don't watch a lot of garbage or cartoons."
He also doesn't plan on making a career out of geography.
"I don't want to be a man who makes maps," says Venturino, who will attend San Ramon Valley High School next year. "I might become a surgeon. My mom suggested that after she saw me extract a peppercorn from a piece of salami!"
The National Geographic Bee is open to students in grades fourth through eight. For more information, visit www.nationalgeographic.com/geobee.