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Bridgewater-Emery's Fink is three-time state winner of geo bee

Owen Fink, a seventh-grader at Bridgewater-Emery Middle School, will compete in his third national geography bee in Washington D.C. in May after winning the South Dakota geography bee for the third year in a row. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Owen Fink lives a self-proclaimed double life.

On one side, he's an athlete and enjoys hanging out with his friends.

On the flip side, he's a geography whiz kid.

Fink, a seventh-grader at Bridgewater-Emery Middle School, won his third straight state geography bee last week.

"I feel like everybody is pretty tired of this kid winning three years in a row, but I'm also excited because I get to go to D.C. again," he said.

His love of geography began at the age of 3 when his mother, Valerie Marsh, gave him a puzzle of the United States, which he put together in minutes. She then gave Fink a globe and he began to discover the joy in exploring the world.

"He read at an early age, so he learned the states and capitals," Marsh said. "So, I knew early on he had a knack for retaining facts and geography."

As his interest grew, Marsh encouraged him to continue studying and she searched for a local or area geography bee. After coming up empty-handed, Marsh suggested the school start a geography bee.

Elementary Principal Kim Aman agreed the idea had merit and organized the first bee in 2015, which included just fourth and fifth graders as a test run. When it became a success, the school included grade fourth through eighth.

"I credit my mom for helping start that," Fink said. "And my principal for saying it was a good idea."

Since Fink has won the competition all four years and won state for three years, Aman is excited about the exposure it gives the district.

"This is quite a feat to make it to state four years in a row," Aman said. "It brings some recognition to Bridgewater-Emery. We plan to continue the bee because they learn about the world around them."

Fink competed in and won his school competition each of the last four years but admits he didn't study well enough in fourth grade to ace the state event. This only pushed him to better prepare over the last three years to take home state trophies.

"It's more than just memorizing capitals," Fink said of geography bees. "It's finding out where we are in the world and learning about the world and its people."

Many questions go beyond general knowledge of countries and capitals to include major rivers, cities on those rivers, and the people living within the countries. Fink often studies global cultures to get a better feel for what kinds of questions might crop up, especially at the state competition.

"I felt pretty confident because I had experience," Fink said of this year's event. "But I knew anything could happen. The year before, I almost lost. I knew I had to keep my cool and not be too confident but try my best."

Europe is the easiest country to study, he said, and is interesting in its diversity from one country to the next. His favorite culture so far is that of Italy. The peninsula's history and beliefs coupled with its food and destinations have enticed Fink.

"Some day, I want to go to Italy," he said.

Studying beyond physicality by delving into culture, Fink has found the competitions have made him realize the importance of being a global citizen.

"You can operate all over the world. If there's a problem, your knowledge of geography can help protect the earth, its environment and its people," Fink said.

He added that his involvement in the geography bees has helped him in his social studies classes as well.

As the state champion, Fink will travel to Washington, D.C., at the end of May for the national competition against 53 other students. This year, he plans to do his best yet by making a plan of what to study and how to study prior to the event.

"I think he's very fortunate and there's definitely a luck component to it," Marsh said. "I'm excited for him. It's neat that he can use his knowledge for an activity like this."

Fink's aim is to make the finals, where the top-10 competitors are televised as they compete for the national title. He doesn't cherish the thought of being on TV, but he's excited by the notion of being in the top-10.

Whether he wins nationals or not, Fink will likely continue his double life by competing in the geography bee one last time as an eighth-grader and moving on to moderate the bee in ninth grade.