Before her audition for "Jeopardy!," Cindy Stowell emailed a producer that she didn't have long to live and that if she were selected she'd like to donate any winnings to charities involved in cancer research. The Austin, Texas, woman died Dec. 5 at the age of 41, eight days before her first appearance aired.
Cindy Stowell had Stage 4 colon cancer when she recorded episodes of “Jeopardy!” in August and September, competing on painkillers and developing a fever that caused makeup artists to rush onstage during commercial breaks to dab away her sweat.
Stowell, 41, never got to see her appearances broadcast on TV. She died Dec. 5, about a week before her taped episodes began showing.
But once the world saw her compete and heard her story, she inspired fans unlike any contestant in the quiz show’s history.
Her run ended on Wednesday’s episode, culminating a six-game winning streak that placed her among the year’s top performers. Before dying, she pledged to donate her more than $123,000 in winnings to the Cancer Research Institute.
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“She really saw it as a personal challenge to test herself in this forum that she watched and loved,” her longtime boyfriend, Jason Hess, said in a phone interview Monday. “She said going in that her main objective was not to embarrass herself. Clearly, she achieved that.”
Her fans would consider that a major understatement.
“This is easily the most compelling five-game champion in the history of the show,” Andy Saunders, who runs The “Jeopardy!” Fan site, said Tuesday, before her sixth victory was broadcast.
After passing an online contestant test this year, Stowell, a science-content developer from Austin, Texas, asked a producer if the show could speed up the audition process “because I just found out that I don’t have too much longer to live,” according to the show’s website.
The show records five episodes a day during set production dates, and she competed in her first four episodes Aug. 31 under considerable physical and mental impairments. She was nauseated that morning, her fever broke in the middle of an episode, and she was in so much abdominal pain that she took painkillers, Hess said.
The drugs delayed her reaction time — which happens to be among the most important motor skills for contestants on “Jeopardy!” She needed help getting up and down the stairs to the set.
Chelsea Cohen, who competed against Stowell during her third episode, said Tuesday that the other contestants had been unaware of her condition. Cohen said she knew Stowell was not feeling well after a lunch break but assumed it had been related to a stomach bug or nervousness.
“I think everyone’s who (has) been on can agree that just competing takes a lot of mental strength,” she said. Stowell’s condition “just made her performance even more incredible.”
A few days after recording the first four episodes, Stowell was hospitalized for what turned out to be a blood infection, Hess said. She stayed there for a week, but taping did not resume until Sept. 13. By then, she was ready to compete again.
It amounted to “kind of a fun distraction from all of the larger stuff that was going on with her disease,” he said. She had recently received bad news about the cancer and was running out of treatment options.
“This was a very pleasant surprise at a time when a lot of things weren’t going right for her,” he said of the show. “She threw everything she could into it, and you can see the results.”
Stowell and Hess were college sweethearts, having met 22 years ago at Virginia Tech when she was studying chemical engineering. They would watch “Jeopardy!” together every day, he said.
Trivia was a key ingredient of their social life in recent years. They often played as a two-person team at local pubs and traveled to compete in national competitions. She was also an avid Ultimate Frisbee player and a founding member of a team at the University of Texas when she got a doctorate there, Hess said.
Although Stowell did not get to see her episodes as they were broadcast, a “Jeopardy!” staff member sent her a DVD of her first three episodes before she died. She probably would have been mortified by all the attention she has received now, Hess said, but would have been gratified that it has led to more donations toward cancer research.
Cohen said she would play along at home during Stowell’s episodes and donate $1 for each of her correct answers, and several former “Jeopardy!” players and fans followed suit, most likely raising thousands of dollars.
Saunders, who has run the fan site since 2012, said a lot of the game show’s biggest fans tend not to favor specific contestants, focusing instead on playing along at home. Although the show establishes a brief back story for each player, the stories typically produce mild rooting interests, if anything at all.
But Stowell’s story blew that sentiment away, as fans hoped to see her on their screens for as long as possible. And even without her story, she was a great contestant on the merit of her skills alone, he said. Just 38 contestants have won six or more episodes since 2003, when the show removed a limit of five victories.
“She has played the game as well as, if not better than, most contestants I have seen in the past decade, not to say nothing of the condition she was in when she was playing,” Saunders said.