Brilliant Mt. Airy student wins $50,000 on ‘Jeopardy!’

Local Life March 14, 2012 0 Comments

by Alaina Mabaso

Sarah Bart, 22, of Mt. Airy, finds that an unusual bedtime routine of her childhood has paid off in a big way.

Mt. Airy’s Sarah Bart (fourth from right, front row) poses with host Alex Trebek and the other participants in the show’s recent College Championship Tournament. The 15 college students seen here were selected out of 12,000 applicants.

“Instead of singing lullabies, my dad would ask me history questions before bed,” she remembers. Local Quizzo players deserve fair warning: Bart’s lifelong love of trivia recently led all the way to a star turn on the TV game show for highly educated people, “Jeopardy,” which is seen in the Delaware Valley weeknights at 7 p.m. on Channel 6.

“I don’t even know how you develop that,” she says of the knowledge base that allowed her to take home $50,000 for placing second in February’s Jeopardy College Championship.

Now a senior-year history major at Baltimore’s Goucher College, Bart dreamed of appearing on “Jeopardy” since she was a child. She had a native “knack for trivia” and a particular interest in American history that blossomed through family vacations and included visits to Civil War battlefields. (Sarah’s pre-college schooling included Springside, Masterman and Central for elementary, middle-school and high school, respectively.)

Last year she decided to apply for a spot on Jeopardy’s College Championship. The process began with an intimidating rapid-fire online test of 50 “really difficult” questions. Last summer, she was surprised to receive a phone call asking her to audition for the show in New York. She faced 50 more questions on a written test, an interview with a “Jeopardy” producer and a “Jeopardy” practice round, buzzers and all.

No one called back, and Sarah plunged into school that fall having almost forgotten about the whole thing. She was in an Amsterdam hotel room with some friends the following December when she saw that a caller from Los Angeles had left a message on her cell phone. Bart had been chosen as one of 15 contestants out of 12,000 applicants.

Some jumping on the bed definitely ensued.

“You can’t really study for ‘Jeopardy,’” said Bart, though she says her broad-based education at Goucher, as well as ample opportunity to study abroad, certainly helped.

To Bart, an undergrad major in history, her field of academic concentration may not lead to a job, but she chose it “to study what I loved instead of forcing something.” She’s currently eyeing a graduate degree in business or sports management. “As an undergrad, you study what you want,” she said frankly. “In graduate school, you study what will help you get a job.”

In the meantime, filming four episodes of “Jeopardy,” including the quarter-final, semi-final and final College Championship rounds, made for a charming educational interlude.

“It would’ve been too stressful and not that much fun if there was cutthroat competition,” she said of meeting her friendly competitors on-set in Los Angeles. Between filming the episodes, they spent their time observing others’ games or hanging out in the green room, playing games and watching movies.

Calling Alex Trebek “a funny guy” who regaled the studio audience with stories about past contestants, Bart shared a couple of surprises for fans of the show. For example, “Jeopardy” episodes take only about 15 minutes each to shoot: the whole tournament was filmed over the course of just two seven-hour days.

Sarah had the satisfaction of seeing her mom, Mary; dad, Jonathan; younger sister, Allison, and three friends cheering her on in the studio audience. (Mary works in the finance department of the University of Pennsylvania Medical School; Jonathan is an attorney with a local law firm, and Allison is a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania.) But Sarah noted that the “Jeopardy” audience is smaller than it looks on TV — only about the size of a typical movie theater audience.

Despite her enviable finish, her game didn’t get off to a very smooth start; she was extremely nervous. “At the beginning of the first game, I didn’t know what to do,” she said. The very first question was in a geography category: the name of a British territory south of Spain. She knew the answer but found herself totally tongue-tied as soon as she hit the buzzer. She found herself in the embarrassing position of apologizing to Trebek in front of the cameras when she couldn’t voice the answer.

She can say it now, of course: “Gibraltar.”

She felt lucky when there was a physics category while three other students were competing (“thank God”) and didn’t do well at German, but she was surprised at how much she actually knew about classical music. To her chagrin, a faster-buzzing competitor beat her out of naming her favorite Will Ferrell comedies in a movie category, and she watched an indie music category from the sidelines that she feels she would have dominated.

What does a college student do after bagging $50,000 on “Jeopardy?” Bart is thinking of a new car, a Spring Break trip to London and hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro. She’s also planning a bit of a London shopping spree, giddy at the idea of buying some of the clothes and shoes she wants. She may need a new professional wardrobe soon: upon hearing Bart say on TV that working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was one of her ultimate dreams, a staffer there reached out to encourage her to apply for a post-grad internship.

After the show, she was a bit hurt to see that some viewers called her appearance dull. She would have everyone know that competing on “Jeopardy” is a nerve-wracking business, and playing the game well and looking good on TV are two completely different skills.

But the world’s “ultimate trivia game” is about the questions. And just as at bedtime all those years ago, all that matters is that she had the answers ready.

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