Ben MacLean was bit by the geography bug the first time he flipped through an atlas.

More than a decade later, the 14-year-old York student and two-time state geography bee champion is headed south to test his knowledge against a field of competitors who are just as passionate about the world around them.

MacLean, an eighth-grader at York Middle School, will represent Maine this week in the National Geographic Bee in Washington, D.C. He is one of 13 students among 54 competitors who is a repeat state winner. The bee begins Tuesday and the final round will be televised at 8 p.m. Thursday on the National Geographic Channel.

After finishing midway in the standings last year, MacLean said he has spent hundreds of hours studying atlases and current events in pursuit of a better finish this year. He juggles his schedule as a three-sport athlete to make time to study an hour a day, often taking online geography quizzes.

MacLean said his passion for geography was sparked at age 3 when his mother handed him an atlas to flip through during a car ride. Reading books made him carsick, but he found tracing boundaries and rivers on colorful drawings fascinating.

“From that one atlas on I realized this was kind of fun,” he said.

Soon, MacLean was memorizing state capitals and airport codes, and frequently asking his parents to quiz him. By the time he was 5, he asked for an atlas of Europe for Christmas. At that time, he lived on Guam with his family. Whenever they traveled, he always wanted to know exactly where he was.

“He’d get a map everywhere we went,” said his mother, Amy MacLean.

Ben MacLean watched his first National Geographic Bee on television as a second-grader, shortly after his family returned to Maine. When he heard he could compete in a school geography bee in fifth grade, he knew he’d found the perfect challenge. Despite his years of studying, he said he was surprised to beat older students to win his first of four consecutive school bees.

School winners take a 70-question written test and the top 100 finishers qualify for the state bee.

MacLean placed 12th in his first state bee as a fifth grader, 13th the following year, then won the past two years.

“I never thought that would happen to me,” he said of his first state win. “That was awesome to be in the top 10. You’re sitting on stage, looking into the audience seeing your family and friends.”

Despite his accomplishments in Maine, MacLean said he didn’t know what to expect when he arrived in Washington, D.C., last year for the national bee. At a banquet for contestants, he listened as kids quizzed each other.

“That was a moment of realization I was in over my head,” he said. “I didn’t know all the places they said. I set a goal to know those answers.”

After he was eliminated, questions asked of the remaining contestants “were way out of my league,” he said.

Amy MacLean said she and her husband, Craig, got the “biggest kick” out of seeing their son surrounded by other students who share his passion for geography.

“It’s a different intensity level than you see at the state level. Some kids have private tutors,” she said. “It’s truly neat to watch a group of kids who are so interested in the same topic.”

Ben MacLean said his finish last year — and those questions lobbed by competitors at the banquet — helped him get a better of idea of the types of topics he would be asked about. He shifted his studying to include more international geography and current events.

“I feel that being there last year is a huge advantage to me. I have a leg up on some, but others will really challenge me,” he said. “I need to step up to the plate and hopefully hit a home run.”

Staff Writer Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: grahamgillian