Katie H's Blog Post
January 30, 2014
My journey to Wheel of Fortune began in the spring of 2012. My mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in March of that year, and I ended up spending much of the spring and summer in my hometown of Bemidji, MN, helping to care for her as she recovered from a very difficult surgery and began chemotherapy treatments. I quickly got in the habit of watching Wheel of Fortune each night with my parents’ neighbor Marion, a 94-year-old Wheel of Fortune super fan! Soon I was able to solve nearly every puzzle before the contestants did, and Marion began saying, “Katie, you have got to get on that show!” I didn’t think I had a chance of actually becoming a contestant, but after weeks of prodding, I finally relented and filled out the online application, just to make Marion happy. I fully expected that to be the end of the story.
In September, I received an email from Wheel of Fortune stating that they were going to be holding auditions in Dallas sometime in the upcoming year. I was invited to submit a one-minute video explaining why I would be a great contestant. I still didn’t think I had a chance of getting on the show, but I made a video anyway, just to make Marion happy. I described the Wheel watching tradition Marion and I had developed in recent months, and asked the folks at Wheel of Fortune to help me give Marion the best and most unique gift possible: the opportunity to see me spin the Wheel on TV!
On January 4, 2013, I received another email from Wheel of Fortune. This one was even more exciting than the first, since it invited me to a “by invitation only” audition in downtown Dallas on January 17. I knew from reading the Wheel of Fortune contestant blogs that typically 50-80 people are at these auditions, so everyone gets a chance to show their stuff. Suddenly the possibility of becoming a contestant seemed very real, and I began earnestly practicing for the audition. I knew the audition would include a written test, so I asked my husband Karl to make me lots of partially filled in puzzles, and he did not pull any punches. For example, he expected me to solve the headline GERMANY ANNEXES THE SUDETENLAND with only six letters filled in. Perhaps needless to say, I missed that one. In addition to brushing up on my puzzle solving skills, I also practiced jumping up and down enthusiastically (something that does not come entirely naturally to me) and prepared comments for the interview portion of the audition.
I drove downtown on the morning of the 17th with high hopes of making Marion very, very happy. The audition was tons of fun! I won a Wheel of Fortune tote bag for solving the puzzle WHITE COTTON BATHROBE, and I was able to complete thirteen of the fifteen fill-in-the-blank puzzles in the five minutes allotted for the written test. Karl’s grueling practice tests had left me well-positioned to easily solve puzzles such as PEARL BRACELET and TV NEWS ANCHOR. After a short break to score the tests, the contestant coordinators returned to the room to announce the names of those who had made it to the second round of the audition. I wasn’t kept in suspense very long, since my name was the first one called! About twenty others made it past the cut, and we were then called up to the front of the room in groups of five or six to play mini-games. We mimed spinning the wheel, called out letters in big voices (something that does come naturally to me!), and solved puzzles slowly, carefully, and confidently. In a fitting tribute to Marion’s generosity and hospitality, I solved the puzzle OUR DOOR IS ALWAYS OPEN. I was pleased with how my mock interview went, including getting a laugh from the crowd when commenting upon my extreme frugality. My husband and I don’t heat our house overnight, and since it was especially cold in Dallas that day, the indoor temperature was only 50 degrees when I got out of bed. I told everyone that instead of saying “It’s cold in here,” I said “This feels like saving money!” (True story!) At the end of the audition, we were told that those selected to be contestants would receive a letter in the mail within two weeks. I thought I had a decent chance of being chosen, but I knew that it wasn’t a slam dunk. Though I was able to display my puzzle solving skills and my ability to remain focused, poised, and articulate even when I am nervous, I was not as overly enthusiastic or emotive as many of the others at the audition. I was likely just as excited as they were, but I do not usually wear my excitement on my sleeve. Nevertheless, I felt the audition had gone as well as I could possibly hope, and I was thrilled to have had the experience and to be able to share the stories of the day with Marion.
About a week after the audition, I started to get a little nervous each time I walked to the mailbox. Day 8: nothing. But not to worry yet. After all, mail from Los Angeles must take at least four days to get to Dallas, right? Day 9: still nothing. But surely the MLK postal holiday must have delayed all incoming mail, right? Day 10, 11, 12: nothing, nothing, nothing. Day 13 was a Wednesday, and there was still nothing from Wheel of Fortune in the mail. I decided that if I did not receive a letter by Saturday, I was going to have to give up hope and be content with having gotten as far into the audition process as I did. On January 31, exactly two weeks after the audition, I got in a fender-bender on the way home from school, totaling my eighteen-year-old car. Can you guess what was in the mail box when I finally arrived home? Now I would get to try to win a new car on Wheel of Fortune! The most thrilling moment of the day was calling Marion to tell her the incredible news. I still have two voice messages saved on my cell phone that she left later that evening, when she called back to make sure she understood correctly that I was actually chosen to be a contestant on her favorite game show. Throughout our eleven years of marriage, I have often said to my husband, “Why won’t anyone pay me to solve puzzles?” Now that I was going to have a legitimate chance to turn my puzzle solving prowess into money, it was time for some serious practice. The letter from Wheel of Fortune stated that I would be contacted sometime in the next eighteen months and would receive only two weeks’ notice before my episode would be filmed.
Since I wanted to be sure that my puzzle solving skills were in tip-top shape at any moment, playing Wheel of Fortune against computer opponents became part of my morning routine. In addition, my husband created a computer program that allowed me to practice toss-up puzzles, and numerous friends and family added puzzles to the database. I had a fun time guessing who contributed such offerings as TINY TIM TEBOW (before and after) and SNOTTY WAITRESS (person). Karl and I didn’t own a TV (remember, we’re frugal!), so I purchased a tiny one with a 7-inch screen so I could watch Wheel of Fortune via antenna signal when I was at home. It was always a treat to be able to watch on Marion’s big screen when I was visiting Bemidji! I documented the puzzle categories used on each episode so that I could get a sense of which types come around most frequently. The 4x8 foot white board in our living room soon became fully dedicated to Wheel of Fortune, as Karl and I regularly practiced bonus round puzzles and made notes about new puzzle solving strategies. I even started exercising my embarrassingly weak arm muscles to try to get them in good shape for spinning the heavy wheel.
On November 6, I finally got the message I had been waiting for. I was asked to be in L.A. for a Wheel of Fortune taping on November 22. The next two weeks passed in a whirlwind of logistical preparations and last-minute practicing (including 200-300 toss-up puzzles a day!). Before I knew it, Karl and I were boarding our flight to Los Angeles, the beginning of the final leg of an unbelievable adventure! To find out what happened next, watch me (and my still embarrassingly weak arms) spin the Wheel on January 30th!
January 31, 2014
In the midst of my final days of practice before heading out to Los Angeles for the Wheel of Fortune taping, I had a moment of clarity in which my goal shifted from winning lots of money to having lots of fun. Though there is surely an element of skill in Wheel of Fortune, there is also an awful lot of luck. I had seen an episode in recent months in which a contestant only got to spin the wheel twice. One time he called T, a perfectly reasonable letter to guess, but it wasn’t in the puzzle. The next time he landed on Bankrupt. I realized that something like that could happen to me, and that even if I didn’t make any mistakes, I could still end up walking away with nothing but the courtesy $1,000. I decided that the only thing that I had a reasonable chance of controlling was how much fun I had. And so I began my journey to L.A. with the intention of soaking up as much of the adventure and excitement as possible. If nothing else, I would come away with an interesting story to tell, and I wanted that story to be filled with enthusiasm rather than with disappointment, even if my monetary winnings were unimpressive.
I read many of the contestant blogs in the months leading up to my appearance on Wheel of Fortune, and my experience echoes that of all those who have written before me. The contestant coordinators are awesome! They are kind, enthusiastic, and funny, and it always felt like they were pulling for each and every one of us to do well. The hair and make-up artists are also exceptionally sweet, and they made me look more polished than I ever have or ever will again. I honestly have nothing even remotely negative to say about any of the staff members I encountered on the day of the taping. Though this is their job week in and week out, they all respect the fact that for the contestants this is a day unlike any they have experienced before and that they will remember for the rest of their lives. After the contestant coordinators talked us through the legal documents pertaining to our appearance on the show, they divided us into groups of three. I had just become acquainted with Rob, who was sitting beside me in the green room, so I was happy to hear his name called alongside mine. Megan was the third member of our group, and we waved to each other across the room. One member from each group was then called to the front of the room to draw a number to determine which of the six shows the group would appear on. I was happy to see Megan draw number 4, not too early in the day and not too late. I was especially grateful that there would be time to get to know Rob and Megan a bit and hopefully develop some camaraderie before our show was taped, since I knew the whole process would be more fun if I sincerely wanted all three of us to win. After the third taping, there was a break for lunch. Concerned that it might not sit well in my stomach, I passed on the pizza and instead ate half of a protein bar and two clementines, followed by four swigs of Diet Coke shortly before heading out onto the stage. Would this be the lunch of champions?
As I took my place on the middle platform, I saw my husband Karl and my friends Amy and Cindy sitting in the audience. Until that moment, they had no idea which of the six shows I would appear on. Rob, Megan, and I each got to take a couple more practice spins, and the contestant coordinators asked us to call out some letters, projecting our voices as much as possible. According to my husband, I had the wimpiest spins of the day, but perhaps I made up for it by having the loudest voice! I must admit that much of the taping is a blur to me, so what follows may contain some inaccuracies, since I am writing this before the episode airs. Though I do know the final outcome of the show, I’m sure I will nevertheless be surprised by some of the details when I watch the episode for the first time on January 30. I was relatively calm, given the circumstances, as Pat and Vanna walked across the stage. Rob, Megan, and I soon had our buzzers in hand, and the letters of the first toss-up puzzle began to be revealed. I must have buzzed in just a fraction of a second after Rob, because I didn’t hear the sound of his buzzer until after I had pressed my button down. Rob solved the puzzle correctly: POLAR BEAR CLUB. Having grown up in northern Minnesota, this one was in my wheelhouse! I’ve read countless stories over the years about folks willingly (bravely or foolishly?) jumping into holes cut into frozen lakes in the dead of winter. Nevertheless, I was happy for Rob for getting some money on the board, and I was somewhat relieved that I would be the last one interviewed by Pat, since I would have a few moments to collect my thoughts beforehand.
I was content with how my interview went, though I do wish I had mentioned that my journal about my mom’s journey with ovarian cancer is hosted by CaringBridge, a non-profit organization founded in Minnesota that provides free websites to families dealing with difficult health situations. Onto the second toss-up! I beat Rob and Megan to the buzzer this time and solved BUILDING A BONFIRE. I should mention here that I am grateful to my husband for being careful to remember every puzzle during my episode, since I surely would not have been able to recall them all on my own. He made a list for me after we got back to our hotel, and when I saw BUILDING A BONFIRE, I said “Oh, which show was that from?” I had absolutely no recollection of a puzzle that I had solved! Solving the second toss-up meant that I got to spin first in Round 1, a Before & After puzzle. And here’s where my memory gets really fuzzy. I do not recall how I lost control of the wheel or whether I had a second chance to spin during the round. But I do know that Megan solved CALL OF THE WILD GOOSE CHASE, jumping into first place with $4,000 ahead of me ($2,000) and Rob ($1,000). I also know that Rob, Megan, and I all cheered for one another while we were spinning, and I hope that this comes through on the audio when the episode airs. What you probably won’t see is that we also put out hands together before each round and said “Everybody wins!” This is exactly the sort of congenial vibe I had hoped for, and it made the experience much more enjoyable.
Yes, I was disappointed when I landed on Bankrupt or called a letter that wasn’t in the puzzle, but I was also happy for Rob and Megan when things went their way. Round 2 is also somewhat of a blur. Rob spun first on the Same Letter puzzle, and I think all three of us were in control of the wheel at least twice during the round. I know that at some point I bought an E and quickly felt foolish for doing so when no letters appeared. Given the position of the N in the first word, I clearly should have either bought an I or spun for a G. Unfortunately, I did not immediately notice the likelihood of an –ING ending, since the puzzle category was not What Are You Doing? During one of Megan’s turns, I realized that the solution was FLIPPING FLUFFY FLAPJACKS. When the turn passed to me, the Fs still were not revealed, so even though I knew the answer, I also knew that I could not pass up on the opportunity to win 5x the dollar value the wheel landed on. Sadly, I landed on Bankrupt, but I was not too upset, because I knew I had made the correct play. Rob landed on the Mystery Wedge and called F, and he also made the correct play by not flipping the wedge over, since he already had $5,000 in his bank. He solved the puzzle, bringing his total to $6,000. I was now bringing up the rear with $2,000, but I did not have time to worry about that.
Between the rounds, we stepped off our platforms, and the contestant coordinators brought us water and gave us a pep talk for the upcoming round. All of the reminders about what would happen next succeeded in wiping anything that had just happened from my mind. I stared with wide open eyes, taking everything in, and within minutes we were back on our platforms and the taping continued. The category for the Prize Puzzle was What Are You Doing? This time I was ready for the –ING! Though I cannot recall the entire sequence of events, at some point the turn passed to me and I maintained control of the wheel for quite some time. I knew the solution was (something) IN THE (something) SUNSHINE, so I had a lot of safe letters to call. I figured that as long as I didn’t land on Bankrupt or Lose a Turn, I had a good chance of solving the puzzle. The next word I solved was BASKING, which made it safe for me to buy the A, and the two As in the fourth word helped me solve the entire puzzle: BASKING IN THE RADIANT SUNSHINE. I have no idea what Pat said to me after I solved or whether I responded in an appropriate manner, but I do remember him saying “Nicaragua,” and I remember being very happy that I had won a trip out of the country. I think I said, “Awesome!” and then I said, “I think I hurt my finger.”
When we were doing our practice spins, the contestant coordinators warned us that if we grasped the wheel pegs too low, our hands might run into the flapper in front of us. I had done just that on my last spin of the round, and the ring finger on my right hand was stinging quite a bit. Pat kindly asked if I needed any help, but I told him I would be fine and explained that my hand was shaking only because I was nervous. The pain subsided rather quickly, but I did have a bruise on my finger the next day . . . my Wheel of Fortune battle wound! The computer program my husband created so that I could practice toss-up puzzles gets much of the credit for my quick solution of HOME ALONE. I was worried when Pat revealed the category to be The 90’s, because I knew that puzzles in decade categories often pertain to pop culture, which is not my area of expertise. After being selected to be a contestant on Wheel of Fortune, I ordered a six-month subscription to People Magazine just so I could learn names of celebrities, titles of movies and TV shows, and current singers and songs on the pop charts. Additionally, I added over 2,000 puzzles to my toss-up database, including hundreds of movie titles. Home Alone came around at least twice in my practicing, including once during the final days leading up to my trip to L.A. Of course, it helped that I was a teen in the 90’s, and though I haven’t ever seen Home Alone, the title is familiar to me. Though I wasn’t aware of exactly how much money I had after solving the third toss-up, I knew that the extra $3,000 put me in a good position going into what would most likely be the final round. Immediately after Pat announced the category Phrase, the buzzer sounded to alert us that time was running out, meaning that Pat would give the wheel a final spin and the round would be completed in speed-up fashion. Though it would have been exciting to see the wheel land on $5,000, the fact that it landed on $500 essentially assured me that I would be going to the bonus round, since it would be very difficult for Rob or Megan to catch up to me with consonants being worth only $1,500. Nevertheless, I didn’t allow myself even a brief moment to get excited about this, instead remaining focused on the puzzle in front of me. I called a T, and after announcing that there were two in the puzzle, Pat said “Solve that, smarty pants!” teasing me a bit for having solved the previous puzzle so quickly. Right after my three seconds were up, I saw a possible solution: MAY THE BEST MAN WIN. Rob called a letter that wasn’t in the puzzle (perhaps an R?), and then control passed to Megan. When the first letter in the puzzle lit up after she called H, I realized that my solution was wrong. Somehow, my mind immediately shifted gears, and I saw the possibility of HOW THE WEST WAS WON. In the three short seconds that Megan was allotted to make a guess, my brain calculated both that I should call W for maximum profit and that my husband would for a split second think I was crazy for doing so. I was relieved to hear Pat announce that there were indeed four Ws in the puzzle and was once again grateful that my vocal cords produced the sounds necessary to solve the puzzle correctly. Again, I have no recollection of what Pat said to me after I solved the puzzle, and I will not be at all surprised if I look like a deer in headlights during this moment, but at least I will look like a deer with flawless makeup and well-coiffed hair!
I do regret that my utter shock prevented me from congratulating Rob and Megan and telling them how happy I was that the three of us were put together for the taping. Rob, if you’re reading this, I hope that your mother enjoys the renovations to her kitchen!
My husband Karl and I had role-played the bonus round so many times that I really was not that nervous going into it. I did feel as though I was in an alternate reality, but I was remarkably calm and collected being there. After the puzzle blanks came onto the screen and RSTLNE were revealed (xxTSx xxxxxE), my mind went into autopilot. Now it was time for the contextual guessing strategy that Karl and I had developed over months of practice. Though I suspected that the first word ended in Y, there was no reason to guess it, since I could fill that in easily myself. C and G frequently occur before an ending E, so I guessed them both. After studying many bonus round puzzles, Karl and I concluded that H is one of the most common consonants used and O is a very common vowel, so with no reason not to guess them, I called those two next. From our extensive practice, Karl and I also learned that our method would not work on all puzzles. Even if I was lucky enough to make it to the bonus round, we knew there was a decent chance I would get a puzzle that did not suit our strategy, and I would then have to rely on a flash of inspiration to fill in a sea of missing letters. Though I would have been somewhat surprised if my guesses struck out completely, I was not at all prepared to hear Pat say that all four of my letters were in the puzzle. I began shaking my head in utter astonishment as Vanna revealed the letters and the solution to the puzzle became readily apparent. GUTSY CHOICE! Pat announced that I won an extra $30,000, bringing my total (cash + prizes) to over $56,000.
What a thrill to celebrate on the stage with my husband and two dear friends! When I was chatting with Pat and Vanna after the show, Pat asked if I knew the solution to the bonus round before calling my letters. I suppose GCH O is a somewhat unusual combination, but I actually had no idea what the puzzle was before starting to call letters. It was purely an instance of practice (combined with quite a lot of luck) paying off! In fact, if I had seen the possibility of GUTSY CHOICE immediately, I would have avoided calling most of those letters, employing a strategy my husband and I refer to as “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” Guessing other letters would not have made me forget GUTSY CHOICE, but they could have helped my mind switch gears if my intuition about the solution had been wrong. I know the question on everyone’s mind after watching my episode will be “What are you going to do with the money?”
When my husband and I were back in our hotel room after the taping and the reality of having won $48,000 in cash plus a trip had sunk in a bit, I could not think of a single material thing I wanted to spend the money on or an extravagant experience I wanted to treat myself to. In that moment, I realized that what I really want to do is to take a year off from my work and academic studies so I that can dedicate my time to several non-profit organizations that have a real need for new volunteers.
My Wheel of Fortune winnings provide me with the financial flexibility to do just that. I have already begun training to become an advocate for victims of sexual violence, and in February I will start another training program to become a court appointed advocate for children who have been removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect. I also have a weekly shift as a CaringBridge volunteer, answering emails and engaging in live online chat with those who are have questions about creating, maintaining, or accessing websites about their loved ones’ health journeys. I am grateful to everyone at Wheel of Fortune for taking me on this wild and crazy ride! It is completely out of character for me to do anything like this, so it will surely end up being a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Thank you also to my friends and family who invested their own time and enthusiasm in this adventure, especially my training buddy Karl and all those who sent toss-up puzzles my way. A big thank you to Amy and Cindy for flying out to L.A. to share the surreal moments of the taping day with me and Karl. It was so nice to have people who could confirm that “Yes, that really all did just happen!” But I reserve my greatest appreciation for Marion Dessert, whose dreams of seeing me on TV forced me out of my comfort zone and onto the inconceivable path that led me to a television studio in Culver City, CA. I never would have done it without you, and I hope that you have fun watching me spin the wheel, even though I didn’t win the million dollars! Finally, for those of you wondering if winning $56,000 will change my frugal ways, let me just say that my husband and I still do not heat our house overnight. It was 52 degrees inside when I got out of bed this morning and yes, it still feels like saving money!