When Ariana Mikulski was growing up in Lansing, Michigan, she remembers watching Alex Trebek get his start as a host on the quiz-style game show “Jeopardy!” Watching regularly with her family, Mikulski developed a passion for trivia and quizzes that grew into her adulthood.
Now, 35 years later, surrounded by family and friends at her State College home, the Penn State associate teaching professor of Spanish will get the chance Tuesday to watch herself compete and answer questions from Trebek on the nationally televised program. It airs in the State College market at 7 p.m. on ABC affiliate WATM.
“I grew up watching the show, and I’m a trivia fan, so I was thrilled to be a contestant,” Mikulski said in a release from Penn State.
Having taken the online quiz for prospective contestants, Mikulski was invited to audition in Pittsburgh in August 2017. Told that only about 300 contestants make the show each year, she felt her chances of making it were pretty slim, despite what she believed was a solid performance on a written exam, she told the Centre Daily Times.
As “Jeopardy!” keeps potential contestants’ files open for only 18 months after an audition, Mikulski had thought her dream of making the show was over — but then she got a call from a California number in January. That was right as the 18 months were about to expire.
“My youngest daughter had a birthday party, and I was at the party when I looked at my phone and saw a voicemail message from a number I didn’t recognize in California,” she said. “So many people have cellphones from different places, I thought it might be a parent of one of the kids.”
But when she listened to the message — and it was “Jeopardy!” — Mikulski said she was “completely surprised.”
She had just three weeks to get ready to fly to Culver City, California, for taping.
Once at the studio, Mikulski said she was most surprised by the size of the set and how much smaller — and farther away — the clues appear compared to how they present on a TV screen.
Mikulski’s episode was taped in February, just a few weeks before the longtime host publicly announced his diagnosis of stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
The announcement, first posted by “Jeopardy!” on YouTube on March 6, came as a surprise to Mikulski. She said Trebek seemed healthy during the taping of her episode, and even talked to the studio audience during the commercial break about a home bathroom project he was working on.
“He showed us a picture of himself ripping up this bathroom floor to install a bigger bathtub,” Mikulski said. “That’s why the news about his health caught me off guard, because this is a guy who a couple weeks ago was tearing up his bathroom floor.”
Mikulski said her Penn State students have sent her many positive messages after hearing the news of episode, and she’s excited for her family and friends — especially her two kids — to watch her compete.