Thursday, November 23, 2017
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Sixth-grader from Seffner takes home top prize at National Geographic Bee

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The final question was complicated. Rishi Nair's reaction was simple — unrestrained joy.

The 12-year-old Seffner boy hopped off his seat, yelled, and threw two fists into the air. He had won the National Geographic Bee.

A sixth-grade student at Williams Middle Magnet School, Rishi was one of 54 competitors who started in the preliminary rounds of the bee Monday in Washington, D.C. By Wednesday's competition, the bee had 10 finalists. The final question: "Which East African lake that drains into the Ruzizi River contains large quantities of dissolved methane gas that could generate electricity for millions of people?"

Rishi's correct answer, Lake Kivu, made him the champion. The top prize includes a $50,000 college scholarship, lifetime membership to the National Geographic Society, and an all-expenses-paid, eight-day-trip for Rishi along with a parent or guardian to southeast Alaska.

The correct answer wasn't immediately clear to Rishi. At first, he thought it was Lake Albert.

Still, Rishi said, he "wasn't all that stressed."

He'd been training years for this moment, after all. The title was the culmination of many nights studying until 11 p.m.

Winning, he said Thursday, "kind of does feel surreal. Right now I'm just trying to soak it all in. It really paid off dividends yesterday."

Williams principal Arlene Castelli said Rishi has always worked like a champion.

"So much of what he's done has been on his own," Castelli said. "He's just a really self-driven kid."

The school at 5020 N 47th St. in Tampa is filled with "a lot of bright kids," Castelli said, but Rishi still manages to stand out.

As the competition dwindled, Rishi showed charisma. During the finals, he asked contest host Mo Rocca, the humorist of CBS Sunday Morning fame, whether the top prize was a trophy or a medal.

Rishi's victory capped a particularly dramatic final round, said Dan Beaupre, the bee's executive director. There were three tiebreaker questions in the finals, Beaupre said in an email. The last time the contest went to a tiebreaker was in 2014, and there was only one.

After celebrating the win off-stage, Rishi came back on and thanked his mother, Geetha Muralidharan, saying, "I love you, Mom," before calling out to videographers to put her on screen.

The recognition was well-deserved, Castelli said, because the boy's parents have always supported their son's aspirations. Rishi's father, Ray Murali, is a project manager with IBM and Rishi is the couple's only child.

It also couldn't hurt that Rishi's parents promised him a new iPhone, a golden retriever and a trip to Switzerland if he won.

In the 28-year history of the National Geographic Bee, Rishi is the second winner from Florida. The first was 2010 champion Aadith Moorthy, then an eighth-grade student from Palm Harbor, National Geographic said.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott tweeted his congratulations for Rishi on Wednesday night.

The National Geographic Channel and Nat Geo WILD will air the final round at 8 p.m. today.

Now, Rishi plans to work at a new goal centered on his passion — increasing geographic awareness throughout the world.

That could mean someday serving as a diplomat or as a National Geographic explorer, he said. Regardless, he wants others to share in his love, especially students in lower-income schools who might not have the chance to study geography.

Rishi isn't ready to stop competing. He's already eyeing contests in math and science, though he won't seek a national stage again.

National Geographic Bee rules won't allow him to compete again once he has won. After the daily work and pressure of preparing for the bee, both this year and last, that's fine by him.

"I honestly don't want to do that type of stuff again."

Contact Samuel Howard at [email protected] or (813) 226-3373. Follow @SamuelHHoward.

 
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