UI senior wins TV game but misses on grand prize

CHAMPAIGN – As the sole intern last spring at a John Deere plant in the small town of Horicon, Wis., University of Illinois senior Carolyn Ratcliffe found her entertainment choices limited.

"Every day I would go home from work and watch 'Jeopardy' and 'Wheel of Fortune,' " the 21-year-old mechanical engineering major said.

She was watching "Wheel of Fortune" in March when the announcer called for potential contestants. Having her laptop computer fired up, she signed up online.

"Never in a million years did I imagine I'd be on the show," said Ratcliffe, a Champaign Central High graduate and the middle child of Bruce and Susan Ratcliffe of Champaign. Bruce Ratcliffe is an Urbana attorney; Susan Ratcliffe is the regional coordinator for integrated pest management in crop sciences at the UI.

Appearing in a "college road show" edition of "Wheel of Fortune" that aired Tuesday, Ratcliffe represented the UI. She won the game, including a trip for two to Iceland worth $4,000 and another $8,500 in cash, but lost out on a grand prize of $50,000 when "Show Your Stuff" eluded her.

Rules prohibited her from talking to the media about her appearance in advance and from disclosing her winnings.

In June, Ratcliffe got an e-mail saying she'd been selected to audition for the show in Springfield. From 60 people, she made the cut to 12 who demonstrated they had "the juice" to be on Wheel; that is, the ability to solve the puzzles while displaying enthusiasm.

"They told us if we got a letter within two weeks, we were selected," she said.

The letter came but said she'd been selected to appear any time in the next 18 months, almost an eternity, she thought.

"At the end of August they called and said, 'Your taping is Sept. 7.' We had a week to get it together. They don't pay for anything," she said.

Thanks to mom's frequent flier miles, Ratcliffe, her mom and her sister, Mary Wyczolkowski, were able to make the trip to Los Angeles on Sept. 6 for a total of $100. Not having to pay much for the flight or hotel accommodations – also thanks to mom's travel points – took the pressure off Ratcliffe to win.

"They told me to wear an Illinois sweat shirt. They said no jeans and no tennis shoes," she said, relieved that her only real fashion decision was what color sweat shirt to choose.

"I thought, 'I'm an Illini. I have to wear orange.' " Khaki pants and brown flats rounded out Ratcliffe's ensemble.

During the round when she won her trip, Ratcliffe said she was so excited she didn't immediately hear the destination until Pat Sajak asked if she'd ever been to Iceland.

The experience was "very fun" and the fulfillment of a lifelong dream to meet Vanna White. Meeting her and shaking her hand left her a bit flustered, she said.

"All my friends know I love Vanna. That's my goal in life: to be Vanna White. I think she has it pretty nice. I don't think (turning the letters) is too strenuous," she laughed.

The experience also gave her something else.

"I have a new pickup line for the bars: 'I was on Wheel of Fortune. Wanna go to Iceland?' "

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