UI Study Abroad adviser competes on "Jeopardy"


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After many years of dreaming, University of Iowa Study Abroad adviser Sarah McNitt heard Johnny Gilbert call her name and began to play one of the best-known game shows in America — “Jeopardy.” McNitt had dreamed of being on “Jeopardy” for many years, having originally applied to be on the show in 2009 and later applying in 2011 and 2012.

“There is an online test every January; then, if you pass the test, you might or might not get an email inviting you to an in-person audition,” McNitt said. “They take around 400 contestants per year. This year, I was lucky.” McNitt was invited to audition for the show in Detroit on July 13. However, there was a slight hitch — that was also the day that McNitt was supposed to get married. Luckily, the contestant coordinators were willing to allow McNitt to audition the day after her wedding.

McNitt’s husband, Jason Sprague, a UI teaching assistant in the Religious Studies Department, said they decided to use the excursion to California for McNitt to participate on “Jeopardy” as part of their honeymoon. “We were both looking forward to a little relaxation and hoped that things would calm down for a little while,” Sprague said. “It’s not very often that so much happens so fast.”

McNitt received the news of her acceptance to the show in September 2013 as she was walking through the Old Capitol Town Center. She was then given a month and a half to prepare for the show. Sprague said he helped her prepare for the show by quizzing her on random trivia at any time, whether they were on the bus, out to dinner, or just sitting around at home. He also said he tried to concentrate on topics that she wasn’t knowledgeable about, such as sports.

When it was finally time to film the show, Sprague, father William McNitt, and sister Rebecca accompanied her to the show’s taping. Sarah McNitt won five-consecutive games before losing on the sixth day. “It all goes by so quickly,” she said. “They film each game in real time, so the breaks between questions last as long as the commercials would.”

She said “Jeopardy” filmed an entire week’s worth of episodes in one day, which created a much faster pace. “If you’re lucky enough to win your game, you have to rush back to the dressing room and change your clothes for the next episode,” McNitt said. “The only rest you get is when you’re sitting in the makeup chair.”

McNitt’s family were not her only motivators for doing well in the show —mother Marilyn, who had passed away from leukemia two weeks before the taping, had been one of her biggest supporters. In one of McNitt’s interviews, she took the opportunity to talk about her mother, blood donation, and the bone-marrow registry.

“I was a little worried that I wouldn’t be able to make it thought the interview without crying,” McNitt said, “But I thought it was a very important message to share, and I’m glad that I did it.” William McNitt said this interview was one of his favorite moments.

“Having her talk on national TV about the recent loss of her mother and urging people to sign up for the bone-marrow registry was the most exciting personal moment,” he said. Sarah McNitt’s, six-day run on “Jeopardy” brought her winnings to $91,398. She and Sprague said that while part of the winnings would be used for their honeymoon in Ireland, the other portion of the winnings will be used to fund a blood drive and bone-marrow registry drive in Iowa City, as well as for a fundraising team in memory of McNitt’s mother for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Light the Night Walk.

“It didn’t feel real until the lights went down, the cameras start rolling and the announcer, Johnny Gilbert, announced my name,” McNitt said. “Suddenly, it hit me — I was going to be a contestant on ‘Jeopardy,’ just like I’d dreamed for years.”

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