Barry Saunders

A ‘Jeopardy!’ champion in more ways than one – Saunders

In this Aug. 31, 2016, photo provided by Jeopardy Productions, Inc., Cindy Stowell appears on the “Jeopardy!” set with Alex Trebek in Culver City, Calif. Stowell, who competed on “Jeopardy!” while battling terminal colon cancer, died the week before her episode was set to air on Dec. 13, but her prize money has gone to cancer research as she wished.
In this Aug. 31, 2016, photo provided by Jeopardy Productions, Inc., Cindy Stowell appears on the “Jeopardy!” set with Alex Trebek in Culver City, Calif. Stowell, who competed on “Jeopardy!” while battling terminal colon cancer, died the week before her episode was set to air on Dec. 13, but her prize money has gone to cancer research as she wished. Courtesy of Jeopardy Productions, Inc. via AP

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run

– Rudyard Kipling

My new hero – okay, shero, if you must – is Cindy Stowell, because she filled each minute of her now-ended life with a graceful and majestic run that, for all I know, is still continuing.

Say what?

Stowell, for those of you who aren’t game-show fanatics, is the woman whose goal was to appear on “Jeopardy!”. She received the call to appear on the show after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. By the time she auditioned and won the right to appear, she was battling Stage 4 cancer.

Neither her competitors nor the studio audience knew of her condition when she appeared on the show, but host Alex Trebek did. That makes all the more baffling and forehead-smacking his comment – near the end of one show in which she trailed badly but was within striking distance of the leader – “Cindy Stowell is still alive.”

Only, she wasn’t, not when the TV audience heard those words. The shows are taped weeks, sometimes months in advance, and Stowell, who was a 41-year-old science content developer from Austin, Texas, died before hers aired.

She taped her first episode Aug. 31, and it aired Dec. 13. Cindy died Dec. 8.

I’ll give the dude the benefit of the doubt and chalk it up to being one of those unintentional foot-in-mouth moments to which we are all subject. But still, yikes, Alex.

That episode ended up being her third victory and the last one with her I planned to watch. Such a fan of her stoic yet warm demeanor, her sad eyes, her haltingly weak but usually correct voice was I that taking a “Jeopardy!” break to avoid the heartache of her inevitable loss seemed like a good idea.

I took a “Jeopardy!” break for three days, expecting to see a new champion when I returned, but Cindy was still on when I resumed watching. She won that match – despite trailing by more than $10,000 going into Final Jeopardy! – for her sixth victory. Going into Wednesday night’s episode, she had won more than $103,000, all of which she had pledged to cancer research, her family said in a statement, “in the hopes that no one else would have to go through what she did.”

As someone who participated in a “Jeopardy!” tryout as a lark, I know how stressful answering questions against both the clock and the most facile brains in America can be. The day I tried out at the Sheraton Raleigh in 2014, the most pressing thing on my mind may have been wondering did I put enough quarters in the parking meter, and I still missed a softball clue about my favorite author.

Imagine knowing that death is stalking you and still being good enough to dust off your brilliant competitors. As her boyfriend, Jason Hess, wrote on Twitter, “She was such a badass.”

Right on.

In a message to a “Jeopardy!” producer, Stowell asked, “Do you have any idea how long it typically takes between an in-person interview and the taping date? I ask because I just found out that I don’t have too much longer to live. The doctor’s best guess is about six months.

“If there is the chance that I’d be able to still tape episodes of “Jeopardy!” if I were selected, I’d like to do that and donate any winnings to ... charities involved in cancer research,” Stowell wrote. “If it is unlikely that the turnaround time would be that quick, then I’d like to give up my try out spot to someone else.”

Wow.

Some writer wrote that Stowell died before getting a chance to see herself on television become a champion.

Bull. She knew she was a champion, and now, so do we.

Barry Saunders: 919-836-2811, @BarrySaunders9

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