“What is ... a dream come true?”
By Tracy Seipel
Allie Sibole ’14 didn’t win on Jeopardy! But it was still a priceless experience.
Allie Sibole ’14 was only 10 when she met Alex Trebek and snagged his autograph.
Like so many brushes with fame, it was just dumb luck: the Jeopardy! host was moderating a national geography competition at Busch Gardens in Tampa, Fla., where Sibole happened to be visiting.
Trebek didn’t know it, but the Oregon native was already a voracious consumer of maps and atlases, and if he’d asked, she could have rattled off every U.S. state capital.
Standing in front of him was a girl who, by the end of first grade, had either read—or had read to her—at least 700 books, according to a reading log she recently came across.
“I think my family did a really good job of being really supportive of my love of learning,” says the 28-year-old biomedical engineer who never forgot that meeting with Trebek, and by high school had launched a decade-plus-long quest to compete on his quiz show.
It took years and countless online Jeopardy! tests until Sibole was finally contacted in January 2020 as a potential candidate. By spring, she had passed a two-part audition on Zoom—one on knowledge, one on personality and game play—and she got the green light in September.
Sibole flew to Los Angeles in early December with her fiance, SCU alum Rick Schulte ’14, for the show that aired Feb. 1.
An empty studio
But the pandemic meant there was no live audience in the Culver City studio: just the crew and a week's worth of anxious contestants waiting to appear on one of five episodes that Jeopardy! films on tape days.
Sibole’s group—she was flanked by two male opponents, Steve and Zach, the latter a returning champion who had won six games—was first up.
“The beginning of the game started off a little slow for me, because I was still trying to get the hang of the buzzer timing,” she recalls.
Her confidence quickly returned, and before millions of television viewers, she jumped in, carefully phrasing her answers in the form of questions during a game that lasted only 19:47 minutes.
Time and again, she crushed the correct responses to everything from identifying the Prohibition-era illegal bar with a word that evokes quiet conversation: “What is a speakeasy?” to naming the founder of the Girl Scouts: “Who is Juliette Low?”
It helped that Sibole is a former Girl Scout, and her knowledge of an assortment of facts moved her into the lead for a brief period, until a few missteps ultimately routed her to third place.
The toughest part, she contends, was the wording of the questions. “That is something that was very difficult to figure out on stage, in the short amount of time that you have.”
There is also no reward for coming close, as Sibole was reminded when she responded with “What is The Ice Queen?” instead of “What is The Snow Queen?”
“That was a bit of a bummer,” she says. “But in the words of Elsa from ‘Frozen,’ I’m just going to ‘let it go.’”
A risk in the final round
Though Sibole had lost $5,000 mid-way through the game, she had a chance to make up part of it with her Final Jeopardy! wager.
The math whiz quickly calculated her odds.
“I didn’t have enough money to win, but I knew if the opponent currently in second place (Steve) got the question incorrect, he would drop below my total,” she recalls. “Wagering 0 would guarantee me second place if he missed.”
Except he didn't miss, and neither did Sibole. Zach got it wrong, but he was already far enough ahead that Sibole remained in third place.
“I could have wagered everything if I wanted,” she says, “but it wouldn't have actually changed the outcome.”
Still, the product development engineer for PATH, a global health nonprofit, kept her cool throughout.
Sibole had walked in confident she could count on her background in math and science if either subject surfaced on the big board.
She knew her early years at the piano would help with subjects related to music, and her love of running and the outdoors—she once captained Santa Clara’s women’s cross country team—might assist with sports-related themes.
Her SCU Core Curriculum courses had already come in handy; those humanities classes, she says, helped catapult her through the auditions that got her to the big stage.
Memories of Trebek
One disappointment was not getting the chance to reunite with the Jeopardy! host she’d met as a child. By the time she appeared on the game, Trebek had succumbed to pancreatic cancer only weeks before. Jeopardy! legend Ken Jennings has been an interim guest host.
Yet it was Trebek who always said he thought the test for Jeopardy! is more difficult than being a contestant on the program.
Just as he also said that what makes Jeopardy! special among all the quiz and game shows out there is that “ours tends to encourage learning.” For Trebek and the audience, learning something new is fun.
It’s a bit more strenuous for the contestants.
Starting in September, Sibole ramped up her Jeopardy! training schedule, watching re-runs of the show to remind herself about the types of categories that come up most often. She pored over atlases, boned up on geography, and pulled out class notes from as far back as high school history.
Together with Schulte, she looked at short trailers from Oscar-winning movies and memorized the award-winning movie stars. He even made her a playlist of the top No. 1 songs of the year in the U.S. since the 1950s.
Anticipation—and some advice
“I remember telling my family if I end up with a question on 1970 sitcoms, I’m going to be in trouble. And then it turns out in my game, they had the category of ‘1971 Emmy Award Winners,’” Sibole recalls, laughing.
Despite her trepidation over the topic, she triumphed after one clue mentioned a sitcom featuring Jean Stapleton as Edith Bunker. Sibole buzzed first with “What is “All in the Family?”—only one episode of which she has ever seen, and that was back in a high school pop culture class.
That last-minute chance response is at the heart of any advice Sibole would offer up-and-coming Jeopardy! players: There is an enormous amount of luck involved in the game show, from the auditions, to getting selected, to the categories contestants face.
Moreover, as she reminds everyone, “it's important to remember that it’s TV—it’s not an IQ test.”
But it sure was a lot of fun.
“It went by way too fast, and I’m sad I won’t ever get to do it again because it was a great experience,” says the SCU alum. “It was priceless. And how cool is it to know all these things?”
Feb 12, 2021
Photo courtesy of Jeopardy!