Jeopardy at this moment is midway into perhaps the most compelling, heartbreaking, inspiring championship run I’ve ever watched as a sports fan.
When Cindy Stowell, a 41-year-old science content developer (and pub trivia maven) from Texas earned a chance to audition for the show this summer, she told producers she had Stage IV colon cancer and an estimated six months to live. She planned to donate any money she won to cancer-related charities. Once Cindy qualified, Jeopardy producers accommodated her with the promptest available taping date, starting her on the show in late August. In early December, Cindy passed away.
Cindy’s first episode, recorded Aug. 31, aired on Tuesday, Dec. 13, a week after her death. Viewers —those of us meeting her posthumously — found Cindy in an uphill climb against Tim Aten, a Magic: The Gathering star and trivia powerhouse who was carrying a seven-day streak that’d won him over $100,000. But Cindy took him down by grabbing some money off nearly every category and protecting the lead she built during Double Jeopardy. (That’s that pub trivia versatility— she nailed a Daily Double about Red Dawn, then won as the only Final Jeopardy contestant to correctly name Santiago as the name shared by a South American capital and Cuba’s second-most populous city.)
Cindy seized the throne — plus $22,801 to donate — and defended it on her second show, which aired Wednesday night. Some careful wagering and good luck in Final Jeopardy brought her two-day winnings up to an even $31,000.
She added a third win on Thursday, nailing Final Jeopardy to come from behind:, earning $8,600 to bring her three-day total up to $39,600 for charity:
On episode four, up to $62,001 to donate. On episode 5, up to $80,002 thanks in large part to knowledge of landlocked African countries. On episode 6, Cindy nailed the state with the most Olympic medals in 2016 (Maryland, via Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky) to make a huge Final Jeopardy comeback and hit $103,803. That’s a lot, but it might not be all.
Jeopardy, of course, keeps its pre-taped results secret, so while reporters learned a contestant had passed before her shows aired, nobody but those closest to her or on the show itself know how long Cindy’s winning streak ran.
It’s surreal to watch. Alex Trebek knew of her condition, but none of her opponents were informed in advance. To see Cindy laugh and smile and flourish is to share a sad secret with her, and to study her for signs betraying it. Cindy’s voice on the show is thin — her boyfriend notes she was feverish with a blood infection and on a dose of painkillers while taping — but she banters wryly with Trebek, buzzes in with speed, and brandishes a knowledge base wide and undeniable.
So then to see Cindy dominate is also a unique thrill. I sit in awe of a brilliant woman earning every last dollar she can for the causes dearest to her; building a sum of infinite potential in the face of her own finality. I have never rooted harder for anyone to win anything.
No matter when Cindy departs our televisions, we’ll be saying farewell to a hero. Watch her, join her in donating if you want, and join me in cheering on the most impressive competitor sports has to offer.
Update (12/21/16): This post was first published December 14, then updated throughout airings of Cindy’s Jeopardy run to reflect the experience of watching her dominance unfold. On her 7th episode, Cindy finally lost, finishing with a grand total of $105,803 (enough for the Tournament of Champions) to donate to cancer-related organizations.
After the airing of her final show, Alex Trebek discussed her appearances and passed along condolences from the entire staff.
Rest in peace, Cindy Stowell.