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The world at his fingertips: Meet the National Geographic Bee champ

Last updated on: June 05, 2014 18:48 IST

Image: National Geographic Bee winner Akhil Rekulapelli with journalist and Bee moderator Soledad O'Brien, left, and National Geographic President and Chief Executive Officer Gary E Knell.
Photographs: Mark Thiessen/National Geographic Aziz Haniffa

Akhil Rekulapelli, 13, winner of National Geographic Bee 2014 spoke with Aziz Haniffa about his preparation and future plans

Akhil Rekulapelli, 13, of Dulles, Virginia, an eighth-grader at Stone Hill Middle School in Ashburn, won the 26th annual National Geographic Bee, May 21 at the National Geographic headquarters in Washington, DC.

Akhil, who finished fourth at the 2013 National Geographic Bee, is the first student from Virginia to win the competition.

Among the prizes he walked away with are a $50,000 college scholarship, lifetime membership in the National Geographic Society and a trip for two to the Galapagos Islands on an expedition aboard the Lindblad ship National Geographic Endeavour.

The second-place winner and recipient of a $25,000 college scholarship was Ameya Mujumdar, 11 from Tampa, Florida, a fifth-grader at Turner Elementary School in Tampa. Third place and a $10,000 college scholarship went to California's Tuvya Bergson-Michelson, 13, a seventh-grader at The Nueva School in Hillsborough, near San Francisco.

The fourth place and $1,000 went to Pranit Nanda, 14, of Colorado, an eighth-grader at Aurora Quest K-8 School in Aurora, east of Denver.

Fifty-four state and territory winners took part in the preliminary rounds May 19 and the top-10 finishers in the preliminary rounds met two days later in the final round.

There were nine perfect scores in the preliminary round. Akhil beat out seven other contestants in the tiebreaker round to secure the final spot in the top 10.

The final round was moderated for the first time by award-winning broadcast journalist Soledad O'Brien, who took over from the Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek.

Akhil who answered all the three questions correctly, outlasted the other nine finalists and ultimately prevailed after going one-on-one with Ameya -- the youngest finalist, with the decisive question being, ‘What African country is building a new capital called Oyala in the rain forest, 65 miles east of the current capital Bata?'

The answer: Equatorial Guinea.

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The world at his fingertips: Meet the National Geographic Bee champ

Image: Akhil Rekulapelli and Ameya Mujumdar during the tie-breaker round.
Photographs: Rebecca Hale/National Geographic Aziz Haniffa

The audience was spellbound when Ameya, on the tiebreaker question recalled the Earth's precise diameter at the equator -- 7,926 miles -- which had many adults exclaiming, 'Wow! Wow!'

Born and raised in Fairfax County, Akhil is the son of Dr Prasad Rekulapelli, a physician specialising in paediatrics, and Swapna Rojanala. Both of them hail from Warangal, Andhra Pradesh.

Akhil has one sibling, a sister, Anika, who is nine and in third grade.

In an interview with India Abroad, just after he and his mother arrived in New York for an appearance on ABC's Live with Kelly & Michael, Akhil said, “I knew that all 10 of us had an equal chance but I really, really wanted to go out and finish it off this year.”

"I just kept telling myself that I have the ability to win this competition and I did," he added.

How did he train for the competition?

"My coach Kumar Nandur gave me tips and tricks on how to stay calm and collected and then gave me key pointers on what kind of questions they are going to ask. And I focussed on a general overview of the countries and then went much more in-depth with each one of them," he said.

"My mom was surfing around after I barely studied and fell short at the Virginia state bee when I was a sixth grader, but realised that I have the potential to win the national championship and because she wasn't sure if she was going to coach me and she ended up finding this coach on the Internet. And, then it started from there."

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The world at his fingertips: Meet the National Geographic Bee champ

Image: The top-10 in the final round of the contest.
Photographs: Rebecca Hale/National Geographic Aziz Haniffa

Nandur, apparently has offered free tutoring to several bee contestants and had coached the 2010 champion.

Akhil said his parents' support was also equally important. "They were just amazing and they were probably the biggest help that you could ever have. They would quiz me everyday and at every opportunity and then would also motivate me to do well and also gave me the relaxation time after I was done studying and helped me decompress," he said.

Asked how he felt to have bested over four million students who were in the fray, Akhil said, "It makes me feel good that all my hard work has finally paid off."

He added that he would like to do medicine and become a surgeon "and possibly work for Doctors Without Borders."

"Right now, I am interested in Stanford for my university education, but I realise that when you are 16,17, you realise you want to be closer to home. So, right now, I am interested in Stanford, but I'll go wherever the world takes me," Akhil said.

Did he know the winning answer immediately or did he have to agonise over it?

"I really had no idea what they were talking about, but when they said the Neuquen Province, then I knew the answer," he said.

His mother Swapna -- who worked in information security, but quit working three years ago to spend more time with her children and help her husband with his medical practice -- said that feeling proud over her son's performance was an understatement.

"I am just so elated. He truly is an amazing kid. So self-motivated, and so self-directed that we hardly have to say, 'Hey, do this, do that,' unlike most of the parents we hear from," she told India Abroad. "He is independent, intelligent and we really feel we are so blessed in having a child like him."