Jason, Vijay, and I finally got up there. I went in believing that I could at least rack up a wild card score, and that I'd be happy and have fun. My plan was to be jubilant when introduced, and that went off without a hitch.
There isn't much I can say about the game, but I lived with my bum ear, and focused enough on the game that my head didn't bug me. The rest just whizzed by. I was in the lead for quite a bit, and noticed as the last $800 clue came up that I was $400 behind Vijay, and I could guarantee myself at least a tie for the lead if I got it. Then Jason beat me to it. And as the last clue, worth $400, was revealed, I figured I could tie Vijay. Then Vijay beat me to it. So it goes. The lead wasn't necessary.
I had $14,800, and I had gone in thinking I needed to be in the $12,000-$16,000 range for a wild card. Then I bumped my minimum to $12,225 just in case someone else had the $12,000 plan. And decided I wouldn't let myself fall below $13,000 if I got above it before Final Jeopardy. So with $14,800, I decided it was best to attempt to clear the $16,000 mark, so I wagered $1,225, which was fine because I'd be safely above $13,000 still if I got it wrong.
The clue was revealed, dealing with a state whose rainwater drained to the Pacific, Atlantic, and Hudson Bay. My only strategy was to name a midwest state I thought would have a river that went to New York (I read Hudson Bay and thought Hudson River, a mistake I didn't realize until I told my brother about the game that night).
Jason was in third place, and his response was revealed first. He was right (Montana) and bumped his score up to $11,500 (an amount I worried about). I was wrong with Ohio and fell to $13,575. Vijay, who had been $800 ahead of me, got it wrong, but only wagered $500 and won. He walked out and joined Alex on the stage, and Alex said, "And here are the wild cards, the four high scores among non-winners..." followed by the consternation of the people running the show. Alex was supposed to introduce the four winners of the previous games.
Jason and I remained in suspense as Vijay returned to his podium. (I was afraid that Jason, who could have won with a bigger wager, would fall short with his score. I was more concerned for him than myself, although I let doubt creep in about my score too.) They taped Vijay walking to Alex again, and Alex said, "Vijay will be in the semifinals with this week's other winners..." and the victorious faces introducing themselves appeared on the monitor (this was from when we said our names and hometowns before any of the tapings). And now at the appropriate moment, he introduced the wild cards again. Nick and Dave Belote appeared on the monitor, and then Alex started talking. That was the moment of realization, and then Alex said that Dave's score had been $4,999, and Jason and I knew that we were both through as well. I celebrated, being relieved not only at having done what I came to do, but also at Jason's low wager having turned out well for him.
The worst part of winning the games in my original run was knowing that I was depriving my opponents of their only chance at the same. I think I apologized to more than one person in my moments of victory. There was nothing to apologize for this time; we were all successful, and moving on.
All fifteen contestants gathered on stage to take a group picture with Alex, and yell some stuff for promotional material. As the previous contestants came on stage, it dawned on me that not everyone had been as successful as the trio I was in. Ryan was the first one I remember seeing who I realized hadn't shown up as a winner or a wild card. Then Stephen, Christine, Patrick, Joey, and Regina Robbins. Stephen was in a daze, alluding to what happened to him. (He wagered $16,350 out of $16,400 from a tie for second place on Final Jeopardy, and got it wrong.) I fear I reacted with an exclamation mark and a question mark, and Stephen added, "I don't want to talk about it." The happiest moment of my Jeopardy career was followed by wishing we all could have moved on.
After everything was done on stage, we left the studio. I greeted my cheering cadre and hugged everyone I could. Then I saw 1997 (and onward) Jeopardy champion Bob Harris. I thought he might be there (Christine's Winner's Blog mentioned that he was a friend of hers, and I was hoping he'd be back for her ToC), and had brought my copy of Prisoner of Trebekistan (his book on his Jeopardy experience) and a Sharpie. I accosted him and asked if he could sign my book, and he seemed pretty thrilled about it. I shook his hand and hurried off to the van back to the hotel.
My head hurt again, and I thought I might crash the moment I got into my room. But I didn't. I stayed up, watched Regina's first Jeopardy episode, and ate a big dinner at the hotel restaurant. I ordered more than I could eat, and had half my sandwich boxed up. I went back to my room, showered, shaved, and tried to sleep.