Caitlin Snaring, 15, knows her world as well as anyone. The Redmond, Wash. (pop. 45,256), whiz kid can recite the names of nearly every city, mountain range and river on the planet, and last year she used her voluminous knowledge to win the 19th annual National Geographic Bee.
I really liked finding out how cities came to be, says Caitlin, who was 14 when she won the competition last May. I studied languages, religions, multiple atlases, two college textbooks on physical geography and the National Geographic magazines to prepare for the contest in Washington, D.C.
Two years before the competition, her mother, Traci Snaring, who had home-schooled her daughter since kindergarten, told Caitlin about the bee. Without hesitation, Caitlin said she wanted to participate. Together they selected some books, including a study guide for the National Geographic Bee. Caitlin read the materials, typed up the facts she thought pertinent, added maps and organized the information into 10 three-ring binders.
She was never without her books, her mom recalls. Whether we were at her brothers baseball games or she was riding in the car, she was studying.
Caitlin, whose interest in geography grew out of her love of travel, estimates that she studied 3,500 hours, about five hours a day for two years to prepare for the competition. The first year Caitlin competed, she was eliminated in the preliminary round. Undaunted, she continued studying and even dreamed about winning the competition open to fourth- through eighth-graders.
Last May, during the second day of the national finals, with only 10 contestants remaining, Caitlin and her peers sat around a wooden table in a room at the National Geographic Society headquarters, popping bubble wrap to calm their nerves before taking the stage in Grosvenor Auditorium.
During the championship round, host Alex Trebek posed the question: A city that is divided by a river of the same name was the imperial capital of Vietnam for more than a century. Name this city which is still an important cultural center. Caitlin answered: Hue.
When she heard her challenger, Suneil Iyer of Olathe, Kan., scratching his marker on a paper card, writing a word that had many more than three letters, Caitlin knew she had won, becoming only the second girl in history to win the competition.
I wanted to show everyone how much I loved geography and winning really topped that off, says Caitlin, who won $25,000 and a lifetime membership in the National Geographic Society.
After winning, Caitlin was interviewed by Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira on The Today Show, and one of her role models, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, autographed a photograph and sent it to her. The gift from Rice was particularly meaningful for Caitlin, who aspires to become a foreign diplomat.
I want to go to different countries and help them with their trade and prepare them for natural disasters, she says. And I would love to see all the places I studied.
Last fall, Caitlin enrolled in public school so she could make more friends and be around other teenagers. Shes in ninth grade now at Interlake High School in Bellevue, Wash., where shes doing well in her studies and enjoying the structure of regimented classes. And while she remains a geography whiz kid, she seems to have forgotten some of the math she learned from her mother. Thats because the memory drive in her brain is full, her mother says.