This season of ‘Jeopardy!’ featured Dorchester resident and speech-language pathologist Sean Sweeney facing off in the competition known for requiring answers in the form of a question.
“It’s an ambition that I’ve had since high school, and I’m 48 now,” Sweeney said. “I remember doing a trivia team in high school and starting to watch ‘Jeopardy!’ I’d rush home from swim practice to catch the end of it. I’ve always wanted to do it.”
For the past six years or so, Sweeney has taken the online test offered on the show’s website at yearly intervals in an effort to make it onto the show, which is produced in California.
During the pandemic, he said, “I hopped back on and took it and didn’t think much of it.” Then, about a month later, he was invited to take another test, this time monitored over Zoom, where he was about one of 30 potential contestants. In regular years, Sweeney said, these tests would be administered in-person throughout the US. This year, Sweeney said, “A lot of people didn’t even turn on a light or say hello to the producer, but it’s sort of an audition.” He made a point of being personable.
“About a month later, I heard that I’d moved on to the next level, and that was just nine people,” Sweeney said. “They were all professors except for me. That was just a mock game and an interview.” At that point, Sweeney was told, the producers had moved past skills and were looking at the personalities of potential contestants. “About a month later, I got ‘the call’ in ‘Jeopardy!’ contestant lore. They said, “‘We’d love for you to be here in about a month.’”
Once he knew he’d be competing, Sweeney began researching how to train for the show online, determining his weak spots and expanding his knowledge through map quizzes, research, nonfiction children’s books, and input from his husband, a high school math teacher. He also used archives of old games to practice selecting categories.
“People think they give us the categories before we go and that there’s specific things to study, but that’s all on you,” he said. “It could be on anything.”
Once Sweeney arrived in Los Angeles, he was tested several times for Covid-19 before he was able to enter the studio where he complied with strict protocols throughout his stay.
“One of the best things that happened to me because of this was connections with people,” Sweeney said. “In this time where it’s been kind of weird connecting with people, people in my life really like hearing about ‘Jeopardy!’ on Facebook.”
He added: “People have been so positive and supportive through the airing. Particularly during this time where we’re having a Covid surge and people are kind of in the dumps, I think it’s provided something cool for people who know me to look forward to.”
Sweeney finished a close third place behind “Superchamp” Amy Schneider, an engineering manager from Oakland, California, and Patsy Lester, a social studies teacher from Patchogue, New York. At the end of the Jan. 7 episode, Schneider became the fifth contestant in the show’s 38-year history to win $1 million.
“I made friends with a bunch of the contestants that I was with on that day, and we started a Facebook chat,” Sweeney said. “We had to wait two months for our episodes to air, and that’s a long time to wait.” In the meantime, Sweeney said, they continued to connect online.
Schneider “has been on the streak for 28 days,” Sweeney said. “She passed a million dollars on my episode. When you arrive, you don’t know that you’re facing a “superchamp.” She’s already in fourth place all time. I think we all felt like we would’ve liked to do better, but we were facing someone who’s a really good player and that happens.”
Above all, Sweeney said, he enjoys the learning inherent in ‘Jeopardy!” “People like it because they like learning and knowledge,” he said, adding that the game sparks interest “in knowing about the world and literature and pop culture. Winning or not winning, it’s a real privilege.”