by Dennis Dalman
Now that Gopi Ramanathan has had a few weeks at home to relax, he can finally reflect on his triumph as one of the three young world champions in geography.
On July 29 in St. Petersburg, Russia, Gopi was part of a three-member team representing the United States that won the Gold Medal at the 11th annual National Geographic World Championship Geography Bee. Canada placed second, and India took third place. The Russian team, competing on its own turf, came in fourth.
“I had no idea that would happen, that we would win,” Gopi said in an interview with the Sartell Newsleader. “I knew there was going to be a world championship, but I had no idea I would be chosen for it or win it.”
And as surprised as he was when he was chosen to be on the team, he was even more surprised – stunned is more like it – when his team won. It’s a staggering achievement, considering in the United States alone about 4.5 million students compete every year at one level or another in the Geography Bee.
Gopi said he is grateful for the support and goodwill he received from so many people.
“I want to thank the entire Sartell-St. Stephen community in all my years of competing in National Geographic bees,” he said. “At times my teachers pushed me to the limit, and friends and the community cheered me on when I got to the higher levels.”
The Geography Bee is part of the Academic Extensions program that is funded partly by the Sartell-St. Stephen Education Foundation.
Gopi’s world-champ team members were Asha Jain, 13, of Minocqua, Wis.; and Neelam Sandhu, 14, of Bedford, N.H. Gopi, the son of Gajen and Vasugi Ramanathan, is a 15-year-old sophomore at Sartell High School.
There were several strange but wonderful coincidences about the American team. For one thing, all three members are of Indian descent. Gopi’s relatives originated in Sri Lanka, an island off of the southern tip of India. (Correction: Although Sri Lanka is off the southern tip of India, it is not, in fact, part of India. It’s a separate country with separate origins.) For another thing, contestant Asha Jain is the younger sister of the boy who placed second in the National Geography Bee of 2012 – the bee in which Gopi also participated, placing seventh.
The three members of Team U.S.A. were chosen by the National Geographic Society, based on their past performances in bees during the past two years. Gopi, for example, has won numerous geography bees at every level since he was in fourth grade. He competed twice in the National Geography Bee in Washington, D.C.
At the world bee in St. Petersburg, there were teams representing 18 countries. Besides the three finalists (U.S.A., Canada, India), the teams represented Australia, Bulgaria, China, Chinese Taipei, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Indonesia, Mexico, Mongolia, Nigeria, Poland, Russia, Slovakia and the United Kingdom.
Gopi and his two team members are likely to remember two words – Equatorial Guinea – for a very long time. That is the name of the West African country that was their winning answer. It occurred during a bidding round during which teams could bid points for a series of five clues, losing one point for each time they bid for a new clue. The first clue, for five points, was “This country’s flag includes six small stars, representing the mainland and five offshore islands.” After a couple more clues, a collective “light bulb” lit up Team U.S.A. After a brief huddle, the team agreed on their answer: Equatorial Guinea.” In just those two words, they had become the world champs.
“We were shocked,” Gopi recalled. “But we didn’t really celebrate much because we had to go back to the hotel and get ready to do some sightseeing in St. Petersburg.”
As he begins his sophomore year, Gopi is not sure what he wants to pursue for a career, although geography, obviously, has always been and probably always will be a big part of his life. It seems to have been practically a genetic birthright as his younger brother, Janagan, is also superbly knowledgeable in the subject and has also competed in bees. Last year, he placed fifth in the state bee.
“I’m not sure what I’ll study in college,” Gopi said. “But I do love geography, and I love science and education.”
Gopi said he will always be alert to the possibility of competing again in some geographic contest, although because of his age and grade level he can no longer compete in the National Geographic Bee.
To prepare for the world event, Gopi studied six hours each day, using atlases, quizzes and maps, mostly on the Internet.
Gopi’s team’s win is the sixth time the United States has won the World Geography Bee, which takes place every two years. In its first year, 1993, London was the venue, and the U.S.A. was the champion. Throughout the years, other champs were Australia, Mexico, Canada (twice) and Russia (the winner in 2011). This year’s bee was sponsored by the National Geographic Society, the Russian Geographic Society and Google.
In a recent essay written by Gopi about his National Geographic Bee experiences, he shared this with his readers:
“Although I never won the National Geographic Bee, I am very happy with what I have done over the past five years. It was a very thrilling ride that hopefully will never end, as I plan to keep on learning more and more about the world and everything that comes with it. I am grateful to my family, friends and teachers for pushing me onward to try my hardest. To the kids who are or will be in fourth through eighth grade, I would encourage them to try the Geography Bee. It is a great way to learn anything you ever wanted to know about our world. You never know how far you might go unless you try it!”
Dalman was born and raised in South St. Cloud, graduated from St. Cloud Tech High School, then graduated from St. Cloud State University with a degree in English (emphasis on American and British literature) and mass communications (emphasis on print journalism). He studied in London, England for a year (1980-81) where he concentrated on British literature, political science, the history of Great Britain and wrote a book-length study of the British writer V.S. Naipaul. Dalman has been a reporter and weekly columnist for more than 30 years and worked for 16 of those years for the Alexandria Echo Press.