This Week's Contestant
POSTED on Monday, April 22nd, 2013
I've always been a big fan of game shows, even when I was a baby. I remember being drawn to the colors, lights, and sounds on the screen, even though I had no clue what was going on. One show that I was always drawn to was "Wheel of Fortune." I even remember playing old video game and computer versions, and doing really well at them. I also remember watching the show with my parents and grandparents ("Wheel" was always one of my Pap-Pap's favorites) and using it to help me learn to spell and pronounce words. As I grew up, I understood the show more, played along a lot more, and watched the show evolve (the all-cash format, the electronic puzzle board, and the big money bonus round, among others), but to me, Pat Sajak and Vanna White were just names and faces on a screen. Little did I know that 30 years later, I'd be on screen with them and seeing game shows in a new way.
Nearly a year ago, I decided to apply for "Wheel of Fortune" on a whim. I've tried getting on other game shows, but got nowhere with them. I just filled out an online application, noted that I would be turning 30, submitted it, and thought nothing of it until last August, when I got an e-mail inviting me to audition in Knoxville, Tennessee, just two days after my 30th birthday! I managed to rearrange my work schedule and made a day trip out of my audition (after all, it was a 3-hour drive from my hometown of Greenville, South Carolina).
From the time I arrived in Knoxville, I was glad I came. I joined about 70 other people, including a few couples, in a crowded hotel ballroom. A few minutes later, two of the show's contestant coordinators appeared and gave us a few ground rules and pieces of advice: we were going to play several rounds of "Wheel," letting the coordinators spin for us. We were to call letters clearly and confidently, keep the game moving, and play the game intelligently oh yeah, and give them lots and lots of energy. Of course, that was while we were standing and taking our turn. While seated, we were expected to clap, cheer, and react to what was going on. I was afraid that I wasn't going to give enough enthusiasm, but the coordinators did such a fabulous job loosening us up, that my enthusiasm came naturally. I've never smiled, clapped, and shouted so much (or so I thought), even though I'm in front of crowds all the time, doing classes and presentations.
The mock games were going well and I was having fun, but I always thinking about my next move, not knowing when it would be my turn. Before long, I heard "Jonathan! You're up now!" I leaped out of my seat, yelled "BIG MONEY!," and was on my way. A few good spins and a vowel purchase for good measure, and I was ready to solve and claim my "Wheel" ball cap. What a rush it was having the crowd at the auditions cheer and clap for me! I had no idea that that was just the beginning. Next came the part everyone was dreading: the test. Not me! I was ready for this. As a test prep instructor, I constantly teach students the virtues of managing time wisely and skipping troublesome problems. Now, the shoe was on the other foot, and I was being tested. When time began, my pencil immediately went to paper and correctly completed 13 of the 16 puzzles in front of me (I figured out a 14th one while washing my hands in the library afterward!). Then, we were dismissed for about 30 minutes while the coordinators checked the tests. During the break, I spoke to several other hopefuls, not knowing that some would be on the show months later.
The coordinators returned and my heart skipped a beat, as they were announcing the first cuts and that only 11 people and one couple would remain. The coordinators then read off several names. Two names went by, then four, then six, then eight, then..."JONATHAN!" Awesome! One step closer. As some of the other hopefuls left, they told me, "Oh yeah, I knew you were going to make the cut. The coordinators were smiling, nodding, circling their papers..." I thanked them for their kindness, but I was focused on the next part of the audition: more intensive games and a personality interview, which I nailed by stating some of my accomplishments (did you know, for instance, that I've consistently lost over 45 pounds in the past two years?) and interests. Late that afternoon, I was done, and I felt great! I spent the rest of the afternoon walking through Knoxville wondering what would happen next, if and when I'd get on. I had a great time, but I had to wait for almost three torturous weeks to see if I made the contestant pool. On September 4th, I got my letter placing me in the players' pool! I let out a gasp of surprise loud enough that I'm sure my neighbors heard. Oh well...
The next two months were filled with my friends and co-workers asking me "When are you going to go on Wheel?" In fact, my colleagues and I made "Jonathan's Wheel update" a part of our weekly conference calls. I kept reporting "nothing yet" until October 30. After a dreary afternoon at the library trying to get some work done in peace, I returned home, opened my e-mail (glad I did it at home, and not at the library...otherwise, I would've had to explain myself), and saw my official tape date confirmation: I was going to L.A. to tape "Wheel" two weeks later! I couldn't believe it! The following day, I announced the great news on our conference call, and since a few of my colleagues lived in Southern California, we arranged to try to meet up and get them in the audience. The next two weeks were filled with telling all my friends, family members (when I called my grandma, my aunt loudly yelled "HE'S GOING ON WHEEL OF FORTUNE?!?" in the background after my grandma said the show's name), students, and colleagues about the show. On top of that, I had to make travel arrangements, get all my work done, and prepare for the show by doing word puzzle after word puzzle and watching episode after episode.
Fast forward to November 13th, when my journey to Wheel began. On the same conference call where I announced my appearance, I learned that I was the top-selling developer on my team for the month and would win our team's prize: a little stuffed ocelot named Oscar. Since tradition dictates that we take Oscar wherever we go, it was official: Oscar was going to be the first ocelot at "Wheel of Fortune"! I packed Oscar, along with my suitcase and briefcase, did a presentation, and drove over two hours to Atlanta to stay the night with a friend and attempt to sleep. The next morning, I was up at 4:30AM to be at the airport for my 8AM flight to Los Angeles. After checking in to the hotel, I was tempted to do some sightseeing, but I was too focused on the show to do that, except for my bus trip to dinner, which took me past the Sony Studios. I also met a couple fellow contestants and their families in the hotel and wished them luck. I didn't realize just how great of friends we would become the following day, even though we all had the same goal: win. As the hours to my taping ticked down, I was worried about so many unknowns: what was it going to be like, was I going to do well, what would everyone think of me, what would Pat and Vanna be like? Remarkably, though, I managed to sleep like a baby, and was awake a few minutes before 5AM (you'll never see that happen again), fired up and ready to make my television debut!
So, what was the taping like? How did I do? Find out on Thursday, April 25th, and check this blog again after the show to find out! Thanks for reading!