“What is the experience of a lifetime, Alex?” Lake Mary college student takes her smarts to the Jeopardy! stage.
One day in early January, University of Florida sophomore and Lake Mary High grad Kayla Kalhor was studying in the Marston Science Library in Gainesville when she saw a call coming in from a phone number in Los Angeles she didn’t recognize. She couldn’t pick up, but when she looked at the voicemail transcription later, one word made her catch her breath: Jeopardy.
It was destiny calling. Kayla had traveled to St. Louis, Missouri in November for an audition with the popular game show, after first taking an online screening test. So she knew that any phone call from Los Angeles would be good news. She was right: Kayla had been chosen out of thousands of applicants to be one of 15 college students to compete in the show’s 2020 College Championship.
“I had to sit down, because I was in shock,” she says. Kayla is only the third UF student to compete in the Jeopardy! tournament – and the first since 1994.
The 2018 LMHS graduate and Alaqua Lakes resident had tried to make it onto Jeopardy! before. Last year, she made it to the callback round, but she had to decline because she was out of the country at the time. This was the second chance she had hoped for, but could not dream she would receive.
Kayla has been a fan of the trivia-based game show since her late high-school years, when she was a member of the Lake Mary High Brain Bowl team under the direction of Steve DeSanto, her favorite teacher. In fact, Kayla says that her experience on Brain Bowl was her best preparation for her Jeopardy! run because “the material overlaps a lot.”
“She started Brain Bowl as a junior, and as a senior, she was clearly head-and-shoulders above most of the other competitors in the county,” says Steve. “She was our team leader. Kayla is extremely confident in her knowledge. When a question was asked, she wouldn’t hesitate or second-guess herself.”
Kayla missed two days of UF classes to travel to Los Angeles to shoot her Jeopardy! appearance. The show’s filming takes all day, with contestants arriving on set early in the morning and wrapping up their day around 5:30 p.m. Every student who makes the tournament goes home with prize money.
Though Kayla came in second place behind Yale student Nathaniel Miller in her first game, her score of $16,501 earned her a wild card spot in the semifinals, where she ended her run. Semi-finalists like Kayla take home $10,000 each.
Now, Kayla says she would advise any hopeful Jeopardy! contestant to make sure to get a lot of buzzer practice ahead of time.
“I didn’t realize the buzzer would be such a big part of playing the game,” she says. “I studied a lot, but I wish I had practiced the buzzer more.”
In the rehearsal before the game, Kayla had a lot of trouble buzzing in, but luckily, once the actual game began, she managed to handle it better.
“It was so nerve-racking!” she says.
When she watches the show now, Kayla says she can sympathize with the players a lot more.
“I used to wonder how someone could get a simple question wrong, but now I realize they are probably just nervous,” she says.
One highlight of Kayla’s Jeopardy! experience was the chance to chat in between games with iconic host Alex Trebek, who is currently battling stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
“He’s a really nice guy,” she says. “I look at him as a grandparent figure.”
When the College Championship aired, Kayla says she was surprised to receive support not only from her friends and family back in Lake Mary and local television stations, but from the whole Gator Nation.
“I didn’t think people would be as into it as they were,” she says.
Kayla knew her Jeopardy! appearance was a big deal when someone posted a meme featuring her on the University of Florida meme Facebook group.
“Who is the best UF student athlete during Spring 2020?” the meme asks above a picture of Kayla with Alex Trebek on the show. “We’re proud of you,” said the meme’s caption, signed “The Gator Family.”
“If there is anything weirder than seeing myself on TV, it’s seeing a meme of myself on TV on the UF meme page!” laughs Kayla.
The rising junior majoring in chemistry (“and maybe physics”) plans to study medicine. Though she ended her Jeopardy! career in the College Tournament before making it to the finals, she says she is satisfied with her performance.
“I do have a lot of knowledge gaps, but I am pretty proud of myself,” Kayla says.
Her hometown is, too.
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