Geography whiz from Washington has favorite place: 1st
Seattle Times staff reporter
National Geographic Bee champion James Williams felt tired — and that was before he boarded a train to New York City to be on NBC's "Today" show, CBS' "The Early Show" and CNN.
That was also before the staff from "Late Show with David Letterman" inquired about his availability. For a 14-year-old home-schooler from Vancouver, Wash., used to hanging around his five younger siblings, the media circus was a bit daunting.
Yesterday, Williams' world changed in 12 seconds when host Alex Trebek asked, "Goa, a state in southwestern India, was a possession of which country until 1961?"
After answering "Portugal," Williams was mobbed by well-wishers congratulating him for winning the top prize, a $25,000 scholarship, in the 15th annual geography bee sponsored by the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. "All these microphones were stuck into my face. I couldn't see anything. I just wanted to get away. I was really tired," he said.
Williams is the third Washington state resident in seven years to take first place in the national contest, following Kyle Haddad-Fonda of Bellevue, who won in 2001, and Alex Kerchner of Kirkland, who won in 1997.
Afterward, Williams was off to the White House to meet President Bush. Asked about his scheduled appearance on the "Today" show, Williams said he doesn't watch television and had never heard of Katie Couric.
But he seems to know everything else. Williams scored 1520 on the SAT, including a perfect 800 on the math portion. He also qualified for two other national events: the National Science Olympiad and the National Science Bowl.
His parents, Craig and Ann Williams, have backgrounds in nuclear engineering and electrical engineering, respectively.
The couple decided to home-school their children because they "enjoy learning together," Craig Williams said. It also was apparent to them that their eldest son had a gift.
By age 2, James knew the alphabet. By 3, he was typing thank-you notes on the computer, his grandmother Deanna Hasenwinkle said.
Every week, Williams checks out a dozen library books on subjects that pique his curiosity. And he's curious about most everything. He has read about spiders, mountains and the weather, his father said.
Geography particularly caught his attention. "At this point, he wonders whether to go to college or wait another year," his father said. "He knows he can do college work. The question is — is he done being a kid?"
Twelve days ago, Williams participated in the National Science Olympiad at Ohio State University, then hopped in a minivan with his mother and sisters, heading to the nation's capital for the geography bee.
"He finished 24th out of 55 teams (at the science Olympiad), and that deflated him a bit, which is good," his father said. "Everyone needs to be humbled."
After the Olympiad, Craig Williams said, his ambitious son felt too burned out to prepare for the geography contest.
The family is laughing about that now. Five months ago, Williams almost got knocked out of the local geography bee by his 13-year-old sister, Kirsten. But he defeated his sibling in a tiebreaker in Vancouver and went on to win the state tournament.
There was another close call in the national competition. Williams was in a tiebreaker with 12 other kids for three remaining spots in the finals. He made the cut, and in an intense final round he and a contestant from Tennessee each answered five questions correctly and needed two tiebreakers before the winner was decided.
"I'm excited," Williams said afterward. "It's really amazing. I never thought I would be able to get that far."
After all his television appearances, the teenager must prepare for the National Science Bowl in Colorado in June.
But first things first. "I can't wait to go home," he said, "and sleep in my own bed."
Tan Vinh: 206-515-5656 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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