Midvale geography bee champ prepping younger brother

Published: Thursday, April 4 2013 1:55 p.m. MDT

Anthony Chang, left, has been to the finals of the National Geographic Bee three times and is now prepping his younger brother, Alex, on Wednesday, April 3, 2013, in Sandy.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

SANDY — For the past several years, the geography game in Utah has been dominated by Anthony Cheng.

The Midvale Middle School ninth-grader was the first student in the 25-year history of the National Geographic Bee to make it into the national finals three times, finishing fourth in 2012, fifth in 2011 and sixth in 2010.

But Anthony is too old to compete this year, leaving room for a new Utah geography champion to emerge. On Friday, roughly 100 Utah students will compete at Thanksgiving Point for a shot at the national competition next month in Washington, D.C.

Among this year's competitors are several returning participants, including Anthony's brother, Alex Cheng, a sixth-grade student at Peruvian Park Elementary.

"I'm just going to try to do my best, try my hardest," Alex said.

Sheila Keller-Powell, who has served as state-level coordinator of the bee since its creation 25 years ago, described Anthony's achievements at the competition as "phenomenal." And she called Alex, who participated for the first time last year as a fifth-grader, an outstanding student and gifted pianist.

"I can’t imagine what their dinner table must be like," Keller-Powell said. "They must practice every night."

Alex said he has spent between 30 minutes and a hour studying each day in preparation for the competition. His parents, Wendy Lu and Albert Cheng, said they will occasionally quiz their sons and help with practice questions for the bee, but for the most part, both boys are self-motivated to study.

"This is a long journey," Lu said of the competition. "You can't just do it for the last few weeks."

Cheng and Lu have attended each of their sons' competitions, including Anthony's three contests in Washington, D.C. Cheng said he gets anxious watching his boys compete, an effect that has not lessened with time.

"Each year it seems I'm more nervous than the previous year," he said. "(It) becomes so competitive."

Should Alex — or any Utah student — take the top prize in Washington, D.C., next month, he'll receive a $25,000 scholarship and an all-expense paid trip to the Galápagos Islands.

Alex said he doesn't feel a lot of pressure to fill his brother's shoes — he's more interested in mathematics than geography, he admits — but it would still be exciting to become Utah's first National Geographic Bee champion.

"I think I'm pretty good on the Western United States, the cities," he said. "I'm sort of nervous about physical geography."

In addition to being the 25th anniversary of the competition, this year's National Geographic Bee will be the final outing for longtime moderator Alex Trebek of "Jeopardy!" and for several behind-the-scenes coordinators, including Keller-Powell.

"I’d like to go on longer, but there’s a whole bunch of us who are reaching the age where it’s getting to be a lot of work," she said.

Keller-Powell, who worked for 30 years as an elementary school teacher before retiring in 2006, has helped steer the competition through several challenges, from venue changes to a bomb scare in the early 1990s that saw an innocuous box of National Geographic magazines detonated by police while students waited outside.

"I think that was the craziest thing that ever happened," she said. "I will never forget that."

Keller-Powell also continued working despite her own health challenges, including a bout with cancer and, more recently, Parkinson's disease. In 2006, she said she had to beg her oncologist to postpone a chemotherapy treatment until after the competition.

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