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Harder than it looks Local woman finds herself in 'Jeopardy' spotlight

Alex Trebek and Heather Williams share a moment together for that souvenir photo.
Alex Trebek and Heather Williams share a moment together for that souvenir photo.

In case you missed my 15 minutes of fame, I was on "Jeopardy."

Since I was a kid, I have been told I'd be great on the show. So last spring, when "Jeopardy" launched its online contestant test, I gave it a shot, then promptly forgot about it.

When an e-mail from the show popped up in September, I was floored. I was invited to audition that October in Atlanta with hundreds of others, and would have to pass the rapid-fire test again -- what were the odds I'd make it?

I saw the audition as a lark, a good story to tell at parties. And, since there was no pressure, I did well. I even made the contestant coordinators laugh during my mini-interview.

Of course, they told us only a few hundred of the tens of thousands who audition make the show, and you wouldn't know until weeks before the taping. If you never got a call, well, try again next year.

Great. I'll take Waiting Game for $1,000.

But my call did come at the end of January, while driving in the car with my 4-year-old. I remained calm on the phone but started screaming with excitement after I hung up. Abigail thought mommy had lost it and started crying, begging me not to go to "Jeopardy." I assured her I'd come back, hopefully with thousands of dollars.

My episode taped in four weeks, so did I use that time to study? Since the categories could range from microbiology to Old English, I didn't see much point.

But I did practice in front of the TV. At the audition, they'd handed out pens the size of the official signaling button. Each night, I'd plant myself in my living room and click away.

I also developed a mantra-like prayer: "Fast reflexes, fast recall and favorable categories." The repetition -- and a last-minute review of presidents and the Constitution -- made the six-hour flight to L.A. pass quickly.

I was up well before the 8 a.m. call time on Feb. 28. A week's worth of episodes is taped in one day, and contestants' order isn't pre-assigned. It could take a couple of hours or all day.

The 15 contestants were ushered through the iconic arches of Sony Pictures Studios and into the green room.

Part holding cell, part snack buffet, the green room kept contestants from the prying eyes of tourists and the encouraging words of family. Portraits of visiting celebrities lined the walls, watching over the contestants as we chatted, trying to learn more about each other.

After filling out papers and introducing us to the makeup artist, the contestant coordinators led us out onto the set.

"It's so much smaller than I thought!" we all marveled. But I knew this was the real thing. Adrenaline raced through me, but I still felt confident.

After a few practice questions, the coordinators led us back to the green room for a couple of hours of rules and suggestions.

Sounds tedious, but this was probably my favorite part. The coordinators had an anecdote for every rule and kept us laughing. They also shared tips on staying in the game when you're down and just having fun.

The tapings finally started around 11 a.m. I sat in the audience through the first three games, listening to Johnny Gilbert's banter and practicing ringing in on my thumb. The categories were right up my alley -- lots of literature and history and female-friendly pop culture. I was sure I was going to blow the game away.

My husband sat elsewhere in the audience, though, and he realized those ideal categories would not be coming my way again. Good thing we couldn't talk to each other after all.

After a quick lunch, the remaining contestants were ushered back onto the set. The returning champ was nervous as a cat, but I was strangely calm.

Suddenly, my name was called. After a moment of shock, I strode confidently out onto the stage. I'd had time to size up my competition and was pumped about my chances.

Then the categories were revealed. My heart sank as I realized that my liberal arts studies would be of little help. But I tried to stay upbeat, be fast on the buzzer and to guess correctly -- and I ended the first round in the red.

The contestant coordinators, those wonderful souls, coached me on correct button pushing and complimented my shoes. Then Alex Trebek came over to take a souvenir picture -- the only contact allowed. He smiled, said, "Come back out and show them no mercy," and moved on to the next contestant.

I inhaled deeply and repeated my mantra to settle myself. I kept a stiff upper lip as the second set of categories came up -- until I saw my worst fear, spelling out loud.

It was going to be a long round.

Double Jeopardy ended with the champion untouchable and the other contestant well out of my reach. I was just relieved to be in the black.

The final category was fiction. I bet all but $5, hoping the answer was classic literature so I would have a larger total in the end.

It wasn't, but my wager did garner me second place.

I smiled gamely through the credits, and my husband and I left. We grumbled about the categories all the way back to our hotel. But the sunset in Santa Monica helped us both remember that, after all, we did get a free vacation.

Facing friends at home humbled me, and I couldn't bring myself to watch "Jeopardy" anymore. My dreams of European vacations were shelved.

But as the air date approached, I did get a thrill at the thought of being on TV. My mother hosted a viewing party in Florida, while my husband and I watched quietly with our daughter and his parents.

When the show aired June 14, I was pleasantly surprised. My nerves and occasional blank thoughts weren't noticeable, and the game clearly drew on the champion's strengths. I was proud of getting on the show -- despite Abigail's aside: "When's Mommy going to do something?"

Would I do it again? Definitely.

Now, when can I try out for "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?"

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