Who is, ‘Sarah Dubnik’? Pitt student reaches final in ‘Jeopardy’ competition


John Hamilton | Staff Photographer

By Amanda Reed / Staff Writer

Sarah Dubnik is frustrated at what transpires before her.

“Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek queries contestants of the show’s annual College Championship semifinal round: “The [Nobel] Peace prize went to the National Dialogue Quartet of this North African country,” for $1,600.

As the contestants struggle on the television, Dubnik mutters the answer — Tunisia — as the timer buzzes. Though her response was correct, Dubnik didn’t earn any money — this time.

Dubnik, a Pitt senior chemistry and computer science double major and physics minor, won the show’s third semifinal round in last night’s episode, advancing to the championship final, which will air tonight at 7 p.m. on NBC.

Having already taped the entire tournament in early January, Dubnik sat in Nordy’s Place Tuesday night rewatching the second semifinal round, in which Sam Deutsch, from the University of Southern California, won. The pair, joined by first semifinal round winner Niki Peters from UC Berkeley, will compete for $100,000 in tonight’s episode.

Although this tournament is Dubnik’s first time on the game show’s annual College Championship, in which 15 college students from around the nation compete, it wasn’t the first time she auditioned for Jeopardy!

Dubnik first began watching the show with her grandmother when she was younger. However, it wasn’t until middle school — after realizing she could outperform the adult contestants on the show — that she decided she would take the online test for the show.

“I took the online test for the teen tournament when I was in high school [my sophomore year],” Dubnik said. “And then I took the college test at least once before when I was a freshman or sophomore, and I didn’t make it through. I took the test again [this year, and] I did much better.”

Dubnik did well enough to receive an email Oct. 15, inviting her to a Jeopardy! College Championship audition in Columbus, Ohio.

At the audition, Dubnik took a timed written test and participated in a mock-up game that tested her ability to speak clearly, how she carried herself and knowledge of the game’s rules.

Afterward, she put her buzzer down and answered general questions about herself, much like contestants do on the show. She then went home to wait for results.

On Dec. 1, Dubnik received the call inviting her to be on the show. While she didn’t start studying for the competition until after finals week, she was already somewhat prepared thanks to years of practicing Jeopardy! questions and her involvement in Pitt’s Quiz Bowl chapter, a nationally recognized trivia organization that has periodic state and regional tournaments.

Jeopardy! covers the cost for its contestants’ flight and lodging, and provides a per diem for food and ground transportation to its Culver City, California, studios. Five matches were filmed per day, with the quarterfinals filmed on Jan. 5, and both the semifinals and finals on Jan. 6.

Because the tournament was taped more than a month ago, Dubnik had to agree not to reveal whether she won the tournament until the final airs tomorrow night.

Dubnik said her time with the other 14 contestants was short, but meaningful.

When they weren’t onstage together, they were sitting in the audience or in the green room watching the match. She now considers most, if not all, of them her friends.

The contestants did not get much time to socialize with Trebek, however, who has hosted the daily syndicated show since 1984.

“He came out before our shows to congratulate us and to wish us luck,” Dubnik said. “And he seemed very nice, very friendly, and when we were onstage he was joking around a lot.”

Though Jeopardy! isn’t a team-based game show, Dubnik didn’t go through the process of getting there alone. She’s had an entire support network of friends and coaches who have gone from helping her prepare to arguing over who her No. 1 fan is.

“Although her loving mother may disagree, I’d like to call myself the biggest fan of Sarah Dubnik and I remind her of that constantly,” said Melanie Riland, a graduate assistant at West Chester University and Sarah’s best friend for 12 years. “I made her a document of the things that I know a lot about that she may not have known a ton of details on. Of course, I gave her all the encouragement I could.”

Her boyfriend, Matt Johnson, a 2015 graduate of King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, quizzed Dubnik with pre-made packets and previous Jeopardy! questions.

“All of her friends tried to add an area of expertise to her knowledge base,” Johnson said.  “I am by far her No. 1 fan.”

Ryan Dohn, former Quiz Bowl teammate, 2014 Pitt graduate and self-proclaimed Pitt Quiz Bowl sports junkie, made Dubnik a 16-page information packet on professional, and most importantly, college sports to help her prepare.

“On Sarah’s first show there were no applicable sports questions, but I have a feeling something is going to crop up,” Dohn said.

He was right — Dubnik correctly answered a question about Clemson University’s fight song last night.

Pitt’s Quiz Bowl adviser, Dwight Kidder, put her in contact with Jeopardy! alum Craig Barker, who won the 1997 Jeopardy! College Championship as a freshman at the University of Michigan, and worked with 2004 College Champion Kermin Fleming, a CMU graduate.

Kidder counseled her on what categories she needed to have nailed down in advance, like colleges and universities and state and country capitals. He also helped familiarize her with the buzzer system.

“There are probably many questions where more than one person knows the answer and it’s just a buzzer race,” Dubnik said. “People have even written books about it and made systems to practice with. It was difficult for me.”

Dubnik’s friends and coaches may have had different levels of expertise when preparing her, but they all believe she has what it takes to go all the way.

“She’s up against strong players,” Kidder said. “I know other players in this year’s field who will make this a good fight, but she has a strong chance. She played a strong game in the quarters, bet with poise and didn’t get rattled. Those things help you advance.”

Even Chancellor Patrick Gallagher has chimed in with his support. During the quarterfinal round on Feb. 5, he retweeted tweets wishing Sarah good luck, and even did some tweeting himself.

In an email concerning Dubnik’s performance thus far and beyond, Gallagher said, “The University is really proud of Sarah. She represented Pitt so well. It’s quite an accomplishment to advance this far, and I’ll be rooting for her again Wednesday.”

Although Dubnik can’t say if she won or lost in tomorrow’s finale, she can say what she would do with the $100,000 cash prize.

“Well, student loans first,” she said with a laugh. “ I would love to use it for travel. That’s the most boring answer, but there are just so many places I want to see. I’d love to go back to Spain where I studied abroad and see places I missed, and then also bring someone with me so I can say, ‘Look, here’s where I studied,’ and then see other countries as well.”

The cash prize could change her life, but the money’s value pales in comparison to the experience.

“[The money] matters, but being on the show is so exciting, and having people see me on TV,” she said. “I’m not bragging that I have money now, because all contestants got some amount, but I am bragging that I got to be on the show because that’s more memorable.”