AHS graduate to appear on 'Jeopardy!' Thursday

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Answer: Jessica Cantrell.

Question: Who is the 2008 Adairsville High School graduate who will be competing on "Jeopardy!" Thursday night?

That's correct. The episode of the popular game show that features Cantrell facing off against two opponents for a chance to win megabucks will air Thursday at 7:30 p.m. on local NBC affiliate WXIA-TV.

The Adairsville resident said her desire to be on the long-running show stemmed from the love of learning her mother, Sharon Murray — "who raised me completely on her own as the greatest mother in the history of mothers" – instilled in her at a "really young age." 

"She raised a big nerd," she said. "'Jeopardy!' is really peak nerd so I guess it's only natural that I'd eventually gravitate towards it."

Cantrell, 28, said she's wanted to compete on the show, hosted by Alex Trebek, who has been a part of nearly 8,000 episodes over the last three decades, for the past five or six years. 

"I started watching the show in college but never thought about applying to be on until after graduation," she said. "I wish I had thought of it during college so I could have tried for the College Tournament and represented Berry College."

Being selected as a contestant is no easy feat, as Cantrell discovered. 

The first step is taking the annual online test, which roughly 100,000 people do each year, she said.  

"It's a timed, 50-question test that covers anything and everything, just like the show," she said. "Based on online test scores and a little bit of luck, [4,000] potential contestants are then invited to an in-person audition. After that, there's another 50-question test to ensure no one cheated on the online version and a mock game, along with an interview portion. Once you've completed the in-person audition, you're in the contestant pool for 18 months." 

The show has room for about 400 contestants each season, she added.

Cantrell, who is the development assistant at Tellus Science Museum and a part-time test proctor at Georgia Highlands College's Cartersville campus, said she took the online test four or five times, "never with any luck."

"I took it again earlier this year and then got an invitation for an in-person audition in Atlanta in May," she said. "I received a phone call from Culver City, California, which I actually let go to voice mail because I was in a meeting, in July to tape in August and appear on the show in October."

To prepare for the show, the 2012 Berry College graduate did several things to increase the knowledge she already had obtained.

"My everyday life prepared me a little bit," she said. "I'm lucky enough to work at Tellus Science Museum [since 2010] so I've got a decent grasp on subjects like geology, and I have a history degree from Berry College so I've got a general idea of the order in which major events occurred. Outside of that, I love to watch documentaries, participate in pub trivia, read and watch the news."

For the "serious preparation," Cantrell said she visited a website called J! Archive, which listed "every question ever asked on the show so I spent a lot of time on there getting a feel for what's asked most often."

"I memorized all of the world capitals, lots of authors and books, explorers and, in a fit of procrastination, everything they've ever asked related to fabric," she said. "I'm lucky enough to have great friends who helped quiz me on things, too."

She even worked on her math skills so she would know how much to wager during Final Jeopardy!

"There's all kinds of game theory involved in wagering, along with good old regular math, which I try to avoid as much as possible in my day-to-day life," she said. "I would watch episodes and then decide what I would wager as if I were in each contestant's place. It was horrible, but it really made me feel more comfortable with it."

Cantrell said she and her mom flew out to California for the Aug. 15 taping. 

"She teaches at Woodland High School, and I'm so grateful they let her have time off so early in the new school year to fly out with me," she said.

The taping "happened so quickly," according to Cantrell.

"A single episode of the show takes approximately 22 minutes to film," she said. "During that time, someone is adjusting your microphone, someone else is touching up your makeup, people are giving you pep talks, you're posing with Alex Trebek and, oh yeah, you're trying to buzz in on actual, real-life Jeopardy! trying to answer trivia questions to win money," she said. 

But the entire experience was "so, so, so much fun" for the mother-daughter duo, she said.

"I really can't overstate how nice and welcoming the entire 'Jeopardy!' crew is," she said. "From the contestant coordinators to the makeup artists to the stage managers, everyone made it a true joy to participate on the show. It takes around 250 people to make each episode of 'Jeopardy!' a reality, and I'm so grateful to have been part of the process."

Cantrell accomplished the three goals she had set regarding the show, which originally debuted on NBC in 1964 but has evolved over the years into the current daily syndicated version that's been airing since 1984.

"My first goal was to get an in-person audition: check," she said. "My next goal was to just get on the show: check. My final goal was to get on before Alex Trebek and/or [announcer] Johnny Gilbert retire at some point: check. I met all three of my goals, and I couldn't be happier."

Cantrell's co-workers at Tellus were thrilled she was able to fulfill one of her dreams. 

"How cool is it to have a real celebrity working at Tellus Science Museum?" Director of Development Adam Wade said. "Our entire staff is so proud of Jessica for making it onto the show. It’s been a dream of hers for a long time. To see her fulfill something she’s been working towards is very rewarding, not only for her but for the community. Jessica was raised by a Bartow County educator and received her education from the Bartow County School System. It’s within our own local school system that she developed a love of history, the arts and so much more. She’s a true testament that this can happen for anyone if you just study hard and keep trying."

While they were in California, Cantrell and her mom took advantage of their opportunity to do some sightseeing.

"Neither of us had ever been to the West Coast so we did all of the touristy things — the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Hollywood Sign, Venice Beach," she said. "As a museum nerd, I also wanted to hit up some of the top museums so we went to LACMA [Los Angeles County Museum of Art], the Broad, the La Brea Tar Pits, the Huntington Library and California Science Center. And of course, we got some famous Animal-Style fries from In-N-Out."

Wade said the in-house celebrity "can’t disclose anything about her taping to any of us so we’ve been trying not to grill her too much."

"She’s very sharp and quick so we know it’s going to be a great competition," he said. "We plan to gather as a staff for a watch party to see her episode together. We are all crossing our fingers that we get to do it again the next night and the next and …. Well, you get the picture."

Cantrell said she's "so grateful" for all the support she's received during her "five-minute brush with fame."

"I strongly encourage anyone and everyone to take the online test anytime they offer it," she said. "Everyone says this, but seriously, if I can be on 'Jeopardy!,' so can you."