Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Third time is the charm for geography bee champ

Isabella Contolini with family

Isaballa Contolini won the National Geographic state geography bee, held on April 9 at DU. She poses here with her dad, Enrico, and little brother, Paolo, 5.

Round after round, Isabella Contolini and Brennen Kaufman sat side by side in a crowded University of Denver auditorium, the last two competitors dueling for the title of Colorado state National Geographic Geography Bee champion.

Neither showed weakness.

As correct answer followed correct answer, quiz master Lanny Proffer was running out of questions. Then, with what would prove to be the final question, the audience could see a flash of recognition ripple across Contolini’s face. She knew the answer in a heartbeat.

“The island of Rapa Nui is better known by this name,” Proffer said, putting the question into play.

Contolini and Kaufman scribbled their answers, then turned over their cards to reveal the different words they had scrawled across them in black marker. Only Contolini was right, and the 12-year-old from Red Rocks Elementary School in Morrison, Colo., leaped into the air in victory, arms outstretched.

The bee was held April 9 on the DU campus, where it is held each year.

For Contolini, the only girl of 10 contestants to take the stage for the final rounds, the victory was even sweeter following two disappointing runs at the tournament, sponsored each year by the National Geographic Society. The win means a trip to the national championships in Washington, D.C., and a half scholarship to DU.

“I am so going to DU,” she said afterward, smiling and waving the folder that held her scholarship. “Do you know what this is worth to me?”

It was an emotional win, and after her victory leap on stage, she gathered and danced with friends at the front of Davis Auditorium in Sturm Hall. She hugged her “coach,” dad Enrico Contolini, and her brother, and alternated between tears and laughter.

“She worked so hard,” her father said. “This year, she said, ‘I want to win.’ She studied every night, two hours a night, since May 1. She read books, took quizzes, looked things up online. She really wanted this one.”

To get to the final round, the sixth-grader had to navigate a grueling array of questions, challenging contestants to identify the location of Guadalupe Peak (Texas), to know what country shares a border with both Thailand and Brunei (Malaysia), and to name the host country of the Tiger’s Nest monastery (Bhutan). She even survived a close call when she apparently didn’t hear the full question about a graph of United States foreign aid, but she escaped because competitors in that stage of the bee were allowed one miss.

“It just seems kind of unreal,” she said, beaming after the victory. “I can’t believe it’s happening.”

Her key to victory?

“Reading,” she said. “I read a lot.”

It was in her reading that she came across the winning answer — the more common name of the island of Rapa Nui: Easter Island.

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