Geography champ takes on the world

Next week, he and his team will challenge other nations in a geographical OlYmpiad

Kyle Haddad-Fonda will soon enter the ninth grade in Seattle, Wash., with a rare distinction: a $25,000 college scholarship. That's because he's the reigning geography champion of the United States. He won this year's National Geographic Bee in Washington, D.C., in a televised final May 23.

The geography bee, sponsored by the National Geographic Society, is much like the national spelling bee. Instead of spelling words, you have to answer questions about nations, oceans, climates, cities, and the like. (We've reprinted a few of the questions here.)

Now Kyle is in training. Starting Aug. 1, he will compete in the International Geography Olympiad in Vancouver, British Columbia. Kyle is representing the US in the Olympics of geography - eighth-grade and under, that is.

On a recent afternoon, Kyle sits on the sofa in the family room of his Bellevue, Wash., home. Assisting him in reviewing reams of geographic facts is his personal quiz master: his mom, Laura. She works as a part-time social worker.

"Right now, I'm trying not to forget what I knew during nationals," Kyle says of the May competition. He was one of 55 national finalists.

Teams from 12 countries will meet for a two-day competition at the University of British Columbia. (Geography question: How far is that from Kyle's home? Answer: It's two hours by car.)

Students compete individually in the national bee, but the Olympiad is a team event. Kyle is the captain of the four-person US squad defending its title. Members were drawn from the top "bee" finishers for the past two years. They are: Nick Jachowski of Makawao, Hawaii, Steven Young of Reston, Va., and Hank Legan of Bossier City, La. Kyle has been busily e-mailing back and forth with them, to share notes and strategies.

From solo to team player

Kyle has never had the luxury of getting help with an answer to a geography question. One teammate has volunteered to memorize the provinces and political subdivisions of Hungary and Romania. Other team members are taking responsibility for mastering other hard-to-remember geographic facts.

So, how does one become a "geo-genius"?

For Kyle, the answer lies in six hefty three-ring binders. He began putting them together three summers ago.

After he competed in his school's geography bee for a few years, he figured he'd have a better chance of getting to the state and national bees if he put together his own geography resource.

He has binders for Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and North America. The sixth one is "everything else."

He opens up his Africa binder to show a reporter how he's organized everything by country.

"Here's Algeria, which used to be called Numidia," he says, skimming a page of facts about the north African nation. He's listed its historical connections to the French Foreign Legion, the fact that its capital is Algiers, and that it is Africa's second-largest producer of oil and gas. He has found all the information in books, magazines, the Internet, and other sources, and then typed it up or converted it into maps.

"You read it, and you type it up and go over it," Kyle says. "That's the way to learn it." Typing it helps him to remember it. He uses a lime-green highlighter to emphasize facts that require extra effort to master.

He got interested in geography at a young age. Like many children, he had a jigsaw puzzle of the United States. But unlike most, though, he began memorizing state capitals when he was 3. National flags, too.

At 5, he saw the finals of the National Geography Bee on TV. He turned to his parents and said, "I want to win that someday."

Kyle says most of his knowledge comes from his own reading. He doesn't only memorize facts - it helps to keep up with current events, too. He reads the newspaper, as well as Time and Newsweek.

His mother and father (Rod Fonda is an attorney) also get into the act. It's not unusual to find six or seven volumes of the World Book Encyclopedia scattered over the family-room floor.

Training is a family affair

Curiosity runs deep in this three-person household, "Although we try to keep up with him," Ms. Haddad says, "we'd never want to compete against him in a bee." Kyle has competed in three national bees.

"I remember all the questions I missed from previous bees," Kyle says. "They generally don't repeat questions, but they ask very similar ones."

This year's nationals came down to a tie-breaker question between Kyle and runner-up Nick Jachowski of Hawaii.

Here's the question: "Below the equilibrium line of glaciers there is a region of melting, evaporation, and sublimation. Name this zone."

Answer: The zone of ablation. Kyle nailed it in front of a live TV audience.

But his most-witnessed moment on national TV had occurred months before when he was a "lifeline" on ABC-TV's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?"

Contestants on the quiz show can call an expert if they're stumped by a question. When Justin Castillo of Kent, Wash., was preparing to be a contestant on the show, he thought he might need a geography expert for a "lifeline." So he contacted the Washington State coordinator for its annual geography bee. The coordinator referred him to Kyle, who was then the two-time state champion.

His moment on 'Millionaire'

Mr. Castillo had doubts about enlisting a 14-year-old's help. But when he asked Kyle questions likely to be asked in a geography bee, the youngster shone. He demonstrated his expertise with a string of correct answers. He even supplied bonus information to boot.

For example, not only did Kyle know that Ayers Rock is in Australia, he also knew it was the world's largest monolith and is called Uluru by aborigines.

Kyle got permission to miss some school last fall so he could await a possible phone call from "Millionaire" host Regis Philbin. (The show is taped during the day and aired weeks later.)

Kyle did get a call, for a $4,000 question. The stakes weren't very high, but Kyle gave a crucial correct answer. Castillo went on to win $500,000.

The question: What US city is primarily below sea level and sinking? Is it New Orleans, Miami, San Diego, or Washington, D.C.?

"I've never been to New Orleans," Kyle says, but I know the water table is real high." New Orleans was correct.

Not surprisingly, the Haddad-Fondas have a hallway bookshelf devoted to geography books. His most valued titles are the Geographical Dictionary, third edition, and "Our World," both published by National Geographic.

Given his vast knowledge of geography, one might guess it's Kyle's only interest. Actually, he studies geography only when he's not doing something else - and he does a lot else.

He plays the harp, runs cross-country and track, plays soccer, and swims. He also likes orienteering, which combines running and map-reading.

To do all this and learn geography means that Kyle has to maximize his time - even bedtime. So he takes advantage of his bunk bed. He sleeps in the bottom bunk, but tapes maps to study on the underside of the top bunk.

Although his immediate focus is the Olympiad, Kyle is looking forward to doing some traveling afterward. He and his parents are going to Europe.

Kyle, as you might imagine, has done his homework. But it wouldn't matter to him where he went. "I don't have favorite places," he says. "I like all of it."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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