2016 has been a rough year. We’ve been bombarded by one depressing and/or alarming news story after another, and so many of us are looking for an escape, or something to celebrate, or a source of community and support, or any way to better our world.
If any of those things are something you’re looking for, then you should watch Cindy Stowell’s run on Jeopardy!
Last Tuesday, Cindy made her debut against a seven-time champion, and then defeated him. She followed that up by winning the rest of the games that week, and then won yesterday, too. With that victory, as a five-time champion, she would have earned a spot in the Tournament of Champions, the ultimate goal of any Jeopardy! contestant. (An update as of December 21st: Cindy won again on Tuesday’s show, making her a six-time champion.)
But Cindy died of colon cancer a week before her appearance. Knowing that she might not live to see her shows air, she asked the producers this question:
“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 6 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. 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.”
This means that as of today, $80,002 has gone to charity to support cancer research. And as a former contestant, I am simply in awe of her. (An updated total after Tuesday’s show is now $103,803.)
I was lucky enough to be a contestant on Jeopardy! in March, and it’s both exhilarating and exhausting. You’ve been spending weeks studying, you’ve got adrenaline going, and since Jeopardy! tapes five shows per day, you’re up at the crack of dawn to get to the studio at 8 a.m. If you win all your games on that tape day, then you’re there for at least eight hours, and if you win Friday’s game, you do the whole thing again the next day.
How Cindy managed to keep as poised, as strong, and as sharp as she was is simply incredible to me. As if that wasn’t enough, her boyfriend even added another incredible element: she “was fighting a high-grade fever (which turned out to be a blood infection) and was on painkillers while taping.”
Terminal cancer. A fever. Painkillers. And she won five games. And she’s still going.
It’s unreal. It’s amazing. It’s heartbreaking. And yet even after her death, her legacy continues to inspire both her opponents and her fans.
You might think that when you’re on the show competing against your opponents, you want to crush them. And you know what? When you’re on the show, you do want to crush them. You should want to crush them. Everyone on the show wants to win and defeat their opponents.
But after the cameras are off, opponents become friends. After all, everyone there is fulfilling a life-long dream and everyone is a tremendous trivia nerd. There’s a level of camaraderie, and great respect for a well-played game.
And so one of the people that Cindy defeated, Chelsea Cohen, decided that she’d donate $1 for every clue she got right while watching.
Please remember to watch Cindy tonight! I’m donating $1 to the Cancer Research Institute for every question I get right while watching https://t.co/w0Sz2QFYZp — Chelsea Cohen (@chelseahannac) December 13, 2016
As of Saturday morning, the Jeopardy! community had given over $6200. And you, too, can do the “Cindy Stowell Challenge” by donating to cancer research here. Watch the show, keep track of how many you get right, and give $1 for each clue. If you really want to be generous, one of my friends even decided to double it if he got Final Jeopardy! right.
Ultimately, Cindy’s run is about much more than trivia. As Rev. Shea Zellweger, a pastor in Connecticut and another former contestant noted, “it speaks to people’s innate need for community and pursuit of the common good. These days, being reminded of that innate desire is a gift and a blessing in its own right.”
It’s very bittersweet to watch Cindy Stowell, a science content developer from Austin, Texas, fulfill her lifelong dream. And so as I watch her incredible run of victories, all I can think of is this poem by Hannah Senesh:
“There are stars whose radiance is visible on Earth though they have long been extinct.
There are people whose brilliance continues to light the world even though they are no longer among the living.
These lights are particularly bright when the night is dark.
They light the way for humankind.”
It has been a dark year for many of us. We are all looking for light, for hope, and for inspiration. And so may Cindy’s brilliance ― in all senses of the word ― continue to inspire us all.