By ALEJANDRA BORUNDA, National Geographic
The two finalists stood quietly at their podiums at the front of a packed auditorium at the 2019 National Geographic Bee on May 22.
“My heart was pounding and felt like it would come out of my body during the sudden death rounds in the finals,” said Nihar Janga from Steiner Ranch.
Legs and hands jittering, they waited to hear the final question. Whoever answered it correctly would be the winner.
“More than one-third of Norway’s northernmost county is located on what plateau?” asked Mo Rocca, a comedian, self-proclaimed geography nerd, and the event’s host.
They leaned over their black, plate-sized tablets, gripping neon pens. “Hardangervidda,” wrote Atreya Mallana from Massachusetts. “Finnmark Plateau,” wrote Janga.
He fell to his knees and pounded the floor in excitement as he joined the ranks of winners of the GeoBee, an annual competition that’s been around for over 30 years — more than twice as long as he has been alive.
The Canyon Ridge Middle School outgoing 8th grader has spent years studying geography in preparation of the national stage.
“I studied by looking at National Geographic sources like atlases, magazines, and their articles. I also looked at online databases like Wikipedia and Britannica to expand upon things I was not so sure about and to go further in depth with things that I already knew about,” he said.
Janga said all of his hard work over the past seven years has paid off and it is a relief.
“After I won, I felt very happy to become the only person to ever win the two top most championships for K-8 students. It was like standing on top of Mount Everest,” Janga said.
His latest feat has allowed him to set another new world record.
“It feels very shocking… as I am the only one to ever win the Scripps National Spelling Bee and the National Geographic GeoBee, and I set the record for being the youngest spelling bee champion,” Janga said.
In May, he was among over 100 young people gathered at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C. for the 2019 Geo Championships.
The GeoBee tests middle schoolers’ knowledge of geography, the natural world, climate change impacts, and more. Over two million middle schoolers from more than 10,000 schools around the country studied, prepared, and competed in the early rounds of the competition. They trained hard, vying to answer whatever tricky questions the judges would throw their way.
One student from each state and the U.S. territories — 54 in total — made it to the finals. Ten stood on stage in the semi-final round on May 21. But the next day, there could only be one.
Janga won a $25,000 college scholarship, lifetime membership to National Geographic Society and a luxury adventure cruise to Galapagos Islands with National Geographic and Lindblad expeditions for two people.
Janga shares his gratitude for those around him who helped him achieve his latest national title.
“I am thankful to my social studies teachers Ms. Kiana Betancourt, Ms. Kelly Wadsworth and Ms. Lara Fletcher for helping me study and encouraging me to excel,” he said.
“I am also thankful to all my friends who kept telling me that I could do it and played with me when I needed a break from preparing for the competition,” Janga said. “I am also grateful for all the support I received from my family, especially my sister, Navya Janga, who missed her graduation events to be with me in Washington, D.C.”
Looking ahead, Janga is going to take a break over the summer.
“I can just finally relax from everything,” he said. “Now, I can just enjoy my life until I have to go to high school in a few weeks.”
Lynette Haaland contributed to this article.