CUPERTINO -- In the uber-competitive Bay Area, some kids prepare for years to place in contests that might pave their paths to elite colleges and careers.

Then there's James Mullen, who just became the first American student to win the International Geography Olympiad, held earlier this month in Krakow, Poland.

"It's really hard to study for something like this," because of the breadth of questions, said Mullen. The 17-year-old decided to enter the competition when he read a blurb on the website of his school, Monta Vista High in Cupertino, about a January run-up to the competition. "I just decided to try out. I'm lucky I did."

He did study previous Olympiad tests, but for the past 10 years, he's mostly been reading National Geographic and newspapers, absorbing knowledge along the way. "It's just something I like to do," he said.

Along with a couple dozen students, he made the cut at regionals held at Saratoga High, then proceeded to nationals in April. There he won the fourth of four slots on the U.S. team.

At the weeklong international competition in Krakow, he left before the winners were announced, because he had to get home for the start of his senior year Aug. 18. He didn't find out he won first place until after he landed in San Francisco. "I really thought everyone else was so smart, and there would be a lot of competition. I was just so thrilled to find out," he said. "It was such a shock."


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Mullen shined in Krakow because of the conceptual emphasis of the international competition.

The U.S. test involved more memorization, he said -- "the location of rivers in Africa" -- while the international competition focused more on critical thinking, his strength. He was pitted against 143 other contestants from 36 countries and had the highest combined score from three contest events, and was the only student to finish among the top 10 in all three events.

Among the three parts was a written section, including a question about globalization: why McDonald's restaurants spread in France before they did in Russia. Another question asked about the uses of forests, and why in some places they were being cut down while elsewhere they were thriving.

On an observation and mapping section, contestants were asked to map out a public-place complex in Krakow and produce a plan for an abandoned sports complex. Mullen drafted a plan for a community garden, gazebo, soccer field and swimming pool, to encourage social interaction, relaxation and a sense of community.

"James's achievement is a tremendous honor for an American student on the world stage," wrote David Madden, the U.S. team's co-coach and president of the U.S. Geography Olympiad. He said Mullen's victory would encourage other American students interested in geography.

The U.S. team finished 10th in team competition.

Mullen plans to enter the Olympiad again next year and hopes to make it to the finals, which will be in Russia. Beyond that, he noted that not many college offer a focus on geography, so he might major in computer science, which these days is required a lot for geographic applications.

Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/noguchionk12.