Team Canada’s showdown in St. Petersburg 

The behind-the-scenes story of how Team Canada captured the silver medal in a thrilling tiebreaker at the 2013 National Geographic World Championship
  • Sep 30, 2013
  • 1,950 words
  • 8 minutes
Jacob Burnley, Spencer Zhao and Kyle Richardson represented Canada at the National Geographic World Championship Expand Image

Imagine being a teenager who’s unrelentingly obsessed about something. Now imagine there was an international-calibre outlet for your obsession. You’d undoubtedly need to be there. And so it was that three Canadian teenagers, madly fixated on all things geographic, found themselves at the 2013 National Geographic World Championship in St. Petersburg, Russia, this past July. Little did the trio imagine, however, just how dramatic their experience would be.

To be selected for Team Canada, Jacob Burnley, 15, Kyle Richardson, 16, and Spencer Zhao, 15, all finished in top spots in recent years in the annual Great Canadian Geography Challenge. Run by The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, the Geography Challenge, as it’s known, is a national competition open to students from grades 4 to 10. The World Championship, moderated by Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek, has been held on a biennial basis since 1993 and attracts teams of students 16 years old or younger from countries around the globe.

“The kids are getting smarter and there are more girls getting involved,” says Trebek, who quizzes the teams on physical, cultural and economic geography in a game-show format. “The Canadians continue to do well.”

Indeed, Burnley, Richardson and Zhao made the event’s three-team final, where they faced off against teams from India and the United States, ultimately ending up in a nerve-wracking tiebreaker with India for second place. Here, the key players themselves — including the teens, their coach Beth Dye and Canadian Geographic Education’s Ellen Curtis — share vivid first-hand accounts of the tense final moments.


  • 11th biennial National Geographic World Championship
  • Wednesday, July 31, 2013
  • Russian Geographical Society headquarters, St. Petersburg, Russia

After eight rounds of questions, the American team had locked up the gold medal, but India and Canada were tied, forcing the tiebreaker round to decide the silver medallists. Both teams remained deadlocked after a first tiebreaking question, forcing a second.


Brief bios of the key Canadian participants at the National Geographic World Championship

JACOB BURNLEY attends Dover Bay Secondary School in Nanaimo, B.C. He was named to Team Canada based on his consistently strong finishes in the Geography Challenge over the past few years (7th in 2013, 2nd in 2012 and 4th in 2011).

KYLE RICHARDSON did not compete in the 2013 Great Canadian Geography Challenge. He did, however, place 1st in 2012 (with 5th and 8th place finishes in the preceding years). The team’s captain, Richardson is a student at Cameron Heights Collegiate Institute in Kitchener, Ont.

SPENCER ZHAO is a student at University of Toronto Schools, an independent secondary school affiliated with U of T. He placed 3rd in the 2013 Geography Challenge (he finished 6th in 2012 and 2nd in 2011).

BETH DYE has coached Team Canada at the World Championship five times, earning silver and bronze twice and a gold in 2009. The secondarylevel geography educator with 26 years of experience lives in Kamloops, B.C.

ELLEN CURTIS is the educational program manager for The Royal Canadian Geographical Society. She is a key organizer and facilitator of the annual Geography Challenge. Curtis joined Team Canada in Russia on behalf of the RCGS’s Canadian Geographic Education, where she oversees program development. Curtis lives in Ottawa.

Dye   I was so excited for the boys that they forced a tiebreaker, because they had fallen into third earlier in the competition.

Curtis   The room was more intense than ever. I was shaking, and parents and siblings were holding their breath.

Alex Trebek   In this final round, both teams will be asked to identify a feature after listening to a set of five clues. After each clue, each team will have 20 seconds to decide if it would like to risk making a response, post the point value they are trying for, and write its answer. A correct answer after one clue is worth five points; after two clues — four; after three clues — three; after four clues — two; and after five clues — one point. The team captain will write the team’s answer on the line next to its point value, fold the sheet and place it in the holder. If the team decides to answer after hearing the second clue, for instance, the captain will write the answer on the line next to the number four. When I have finished reading the clues, I will ask each team to show its answer sheet and read its response aloud. If everyone is ready, we will begin. From the following set of clues, you are asked to identify the place. Here is the first clue for five points: This remote island in the Pacific Ocean has an area of 163 square kilometres (63 square miles).

Zhao:   The first clue didn’t reveal much, so I thought we should wait for the next clue.

Richardson:   I tried to narrow down the options, but there was no way we could answer, the clue was just too general.

Burnley:   We had a few ideas. We noticed India wasn’t writing, so we decided to wait for the next clue.

Dye:   I could tell they were not confident. It looked like they had ideas, but not the right answer.

Trebek:   The second clue, for four points: By 1877 slave trade and smallpox had reduced the population of this island to 111.

Dye:   I could tell the team was confident. They were getting really close, but they didn’t want to lose so they waited for the next clue. They were watching India. They were very strategic.

Burnley:   We still didn’t have much of an idea.

Richardson:   I thought it was Easter Island, but I wasn’t sure.

Zhao:   We were looking at the Indian team to see what they were going to do. They weren’t attempting an answer, so we decided to wait for the third clue, because we didn’t have a consensus.


Open to Canadian students from grades 4 to 10, the Great Canadian Geography Challenge is Canada’s largest student geography competition. More than two million students have participated in the contest since its inception 19 years ago. For more information on the Geography Challenge or to register, visit

Trebek:   Here is the third clue for three points: Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen visited this island on Sunday, April 5, 1722.

Curtis:   The Indian team looked like they had a spark and wrote their answer first. I was thinking “you have to answer now or you’ll lose!”

Zhao:   Jacob said he thought it was Easter Island. When someone thought they really knew the answer, we went with it.

Burnley:   We saw India writing, so we wrote down our answer. We had an idea, but we were waiting for them.

Richardson:   We knew it was Easter Island at that point. There was no doubt in our minds.

Dye:   Once you see the other team pick up the pen, the pressure is on.

Team Canada submits their answer just as the bell rings, signalling the end of the 20-second response time. Richardson reads their answer: “Easter Island.”

Richardson:   We were 99 per cent sure it was Easter Island.

Burnley:   The crowd was stirring. It was a little unnerving.

Dye:   I was pretty sure it was the right answer, but Trebek doesn’t tell you until both teams answer.

India reads its answer: Juan Fernández Islands.

Richardson:   I didn’t know, but I was extremely confident that they were wrong. Then again, there’s always that little bit of doubt in your mind that maybe you missed something.

Burnley:   I thought India had it. They looked really confident. When they said Juan Fernández Islands, I was surprised.

Dye:   I was surprised to see two different answers. I was 90 per cent sure India was wrong.

Trebek:   Well, I can now say that Canada has won the silver medal, because the correct answer is Easter Island!

Richardson:   I think our team breathed a collective sigh of relief. We were so happy.

Zhao:   I was proud of what we had achieved. And I was kind of relieved.

Dye:   The boys just leapt for joy.

Burnley:   That was … it was so amazing. I can’t explain it.

Curtis:   Huge exhale. Huge smiles. All the parents clapping. The first thing that happened after the moment of the reveal was Team Canada shook one another’s hands, then all the teams shook hands.

Dye:   As a teacher, it’s a thrill to see kids set a goal and accomplish it.

Burnley:   In that moment, you’re so proud to be Canadian.

The play-by-play notes from the dramatic finals
By Ellen Curtis

Along with teams from India and the United States, Team Canada — Jacob Burnley, 15, Kyle Richardson, 16, and Spencer Zhao, 15 — advanced to the final round of the 2013 National Geographic World Championship in St. Petersburg, Russia. Here’s a detailed rundown of the day of the final and the event itself.

• Team Canada meets for breakfast. They’re trying hard to stay calm.

• The teens are swept off to the Russian Geographical Society (RGS) headquarters, the home of the event, for microphone checks and to meet event host Alex Trebek.

• The RGS headquarters is a GORGEOUS building, with marble staircases and stained-glass windows — the whole nine yards. The competition room is AMAZING. It has wood paneled walls, and is set up with a stage and all the competitors’ names on their seats with a scoreboard to the right of the stage, and a podium for Trebek on the left.

• There’s a distinct nervous anticipation in the room, especially among the parents.

• Opening remarks from Sergei Shoigu, president of the RGS, Dmitry Livanov, Russian minister of education and science, Brian McClendon, Google’s vice president of Engineering and John Fahey, president of the National Geographic Society.

• Alex Trebek comes out and commands the room. He announces the teams and calls each student to stage.

• Round one: all teams answer correctly. There’s an audible exhale of relief when Trebek confirms their answers. Trebek interviews the contestants, much like he does on Jeopardy!

• Round two: teams answer correctly, again. One can sense the relief and tension in the room at the same time.

• Round three: individual questions, so each team member is on their own. First member of Team Canada is incorrect, but he is immediately supported by his teammates. The other two Canadians answer correctly. Canada is two points behind.

• Round four: find an error on a map. HOLY DIFFICULT! They all knew it, no problem.

• Round five: teams have to match a country to the three graphs shown.

• Round six: individual questions again.

• Round seven: a music question. Teams have to listen to an audio clip, then answer a question based on it.

• Round eight: each team looked at a different mask and answered a question based on it.

• The U.S. team has locked up gold, but Canada and India remain tied, forcing a tiebreaker.

• Round nine, tiebreaker: an auction-style round, meaning the more clues required, the fewer points received. Both teams are asked the same question. Both answer correctly after the third clue, forcing a second tiebreaker round.

• The parents are squirming in their seats. They seem SO nervous.

• Round ten, second tiebreaker: same question process as the previous round. The room is more intense than ever. As the clues are read, you can almost see the internal debate each student is having. Both teams answer after the third clue. India’s answer is wrong, and Canada’s is correct.

• Canada wins silver! Teams share each others hands. Then the photo shoot starts. Everyone is beaming.

With files from Ellen Curtis


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